It’s not the coverage of the crime, it’s the coverage of the cover-up

What does it say when two of the three stories capturing first place in the AP Managing Editors First Amendment awards are about secrecy by public universities? It says there’s a lot of news to be found on America’s college campuses — and a lot of people trying to keep it from coming out.

America spends more than $105 billion a year on public institutions of higher education, and in any entity of that enormity and complexity, there will be waste, mismanagement and corruption.

This week, the AP editors recognized two newspapers — the Courier-Journal of Louisville and the Press-Citizen of Iowa City — not so much for the substance of what they wrote, but for their dogged persistence in using open-records laws in holding their local colleges accountable.

In the Press-Citizen’s case, the award recognized the paper’s aggressive pursuit of records documenting the University of Iowa’s internal investigation into a rape allegation against two former Iowa football players by a female athlete  (records that were also hotly pursued by the student-run Daily Iowan as well). The players ultimately were charged with rape and are awaiting trial, but the university’s initial mishandling of the complaint — including invoking federal privacy law to initially withhold a key document from Board of Regents investigators — turned into a scandal that cost two university vice presidents their jobs.

The Courier-Journal was honored for its successful seven-year-long legal battle to gain the release of records of contributors to the University of Louisville Foundation, which the university fought to withhold on the grounds of donor privacy interests. Once the Courier-Journal obtained release of the information, it in fact discovered no “smoking gun” of scandal. But the precedent that the Courier-Journal helped establish — that a private foundation controlled by, and operated for the benefit of, a public university is a public agency subject to the Kentucky Open Records Act — will be of lasting importance as university “affiliate” and “auxiliary” enterprises proliferate.