OSU student leads fight to open football player’s lawsuit

Citizens’ rights to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened everyday, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on efforts by student journalists to access information and report in the sunshine.

OKLAHOMA — Sean Hill is running out of time.

The senior editor at Oklahoma State University’s Daily O’Collegian spearheaded coverage of a controversial case against a popular football player, weathered the ensuing flack from angry students and pushed for the newspaper to intervene to gain access to sealed court documents. Hill will graduate without reporting the saga’s conclusion if the case fails to settle out of court.

“It’s upsetting,” Hill said. “[The newspaper staff] hoped that we’d be able to come to a conclusion with this series of stories by next semester.”

When former OSU student Vernand Morency enters the NFL Draft combine on April 23, the talented running back, currently training in Miami, will be poised for athletic stardom. For Hill and his colleagues, Morency is a campus celebrity surrounded by secrets the newspaper may never know.

In September 2004, Hill was busy writing for the O’Collegian and working the administration beat for a public affairs reporting class when he chanced upon a contentious collection of legal documents.

“I’d gone to the Payne County Courthouse to ask about another case,” Hill said. “Morency had been charged with accepting stolen property. I was going to ask about information in that case. [The clerk] said the case had been taken out of the system and expunged from his record, but they had this search warrant under his name so they printed it off and gave it to me.”

Hill read that a female OSU student implicated Morency in her 2003 rape. A university police investigator filed an affidavit, but the county district attorney declined to file charges due to lack of evidence. After the athletic department suspended Morency, then 24, he sued the university to maintain his athletic eligibility. The court dismissed the case and sealed the case documents.

The O’Collegian printed Hill’s discovery on the front page on Oct. 4, 2004.

“There were a few [staffers] who questioned why we were doing it, why we were working on the story,” Hill said.

Students flooded the newspaper with angry letters and e-mails, many addressing Hill directly. He was perplexed by the passion of the outcry.

“A lot of the e-mails tried to take shots at me,” he said. “I guess you could say I was personally targeted. [The e-mails] said things like ‘Poor exercise in journalism’ and ‘Maybe you should go work for the tabloids.’ The Dan Rather incident happened about that time, and there were lots of comparisons to that,” referencing the CBS News anchor’s report about President Bush’s military record that was subsequently revealed as based on inauthentic documents.

An OSU senior wrote: “I was shocked and outraged after picking up the paper on Monday, Oct. 4. How could anyone write such trash about Vernand Morency? He is having an outstanding season and someone decided to go digging into his past. Everyone has things in their past that they do not want brought up. I am very disappointed that his own school paper would throw this in his face!”

The O’Collegian countered with an editorial supporting Hill’s story, explaining that the reported facts were on public record, but Hill said the hubbub continued for two weeks.

“A lot of the e-mails would say, ‘I don’t know [Morency] personally but I hear he’s a great person,’ or ‘I don’t know him personally but he’s a great football player,'” Hill said. “There was a lot of ‘Why would you do this to a student?’ and ‘Why would you try to hurt someone?’ [Students] really surrounded him and the football team.”

Two football players surrounded another O’Collegian reporter and bombarded him with questions at a post-game press conference the day Hill’s story ran, according to a sports editorial published in the O’Collegian on Oct. 5. The sports editor neither supported nor rebuked the coverage, but explained the separation between the paper’s news and sports department.

“In sports, myself and the rest of the sports writers cover the events that happen on the field,” the sports editor wrote. “I believe both players then began to understand why I was there.”

When the court sealed Morency’s civil suit documents, Hill’s public affairs professor recommended an attorney skilled in open government cases. Hill worked closely with him to intervene to gain access to the sealed documents.

“I kind of lead that charge,” Hill said. “Early on, when we were having stuff every month, every other month, I was in touch with him weekly.”

Suddenly the newspaper became the story.

“It was a little odd,” Hill said. “We’re told to keep ourselves out of stories, but when you get involved in something like this it’s kind of hard to avoid. It was always strange to be writing about what the paper was doing or to be speaking with reporters down here who were covering it.”

The newspaper celebrated a temporary victory in January when the court ordered the documents unsealed. Morency’s counsel immediately appealed, and the case is on file with the Oklahoma State Supreme Court. If both parties use all their allotted time to prepare for the case, it will be June before proceedings begin and several more months before the court reaches a decision.

The newspaper staff is grooming Hill’s successors to handle the complex coverage–“some of our more senior staff who have been with us a long time and would be able to handle the story,” he said.

Hill said the Morency case has impressed upon him the value of freedom of information laws.

“The class that I wrote the story for really helped me appreciate open records and open-meetings laws more,” he said. “It’s reinforced my belief in open records.”

Right now Hill’s future is as uncertain as the court documents’. He has applied for internships, is considering law and graduate school, and is deciding if he wants to move. Still, he said, the experience was valuable even if he cannot cover the case to the end.

“It’s a step in a journalist’s career,” he said. “Eventually you’ll be dealing with touchy issues, big issues. In the long run, it’s given me experience to deal with this type of thing in the future.”

–By Kate Campbell

Read previous Sunshine Week coverage.