Tulane editor suing Louisiana for football attendance records

LOUISIANA — The editor of Tulane’s student newspaper is suing the state of Louisiana for attendance records from football games the school played at the Superdome.

Since May, The Tulane Hullabaloo has sought turnstile attendance figures. Editor-in-Chief Ryan Jones filed his lawsuit last week after hearing from state officials that SMG, the private company hired by Louisiana to run the Superdome, refused to release the records.

Jones said the Hullabaloo wants attendance records to investigate the state of the Tulane football fan base after several dismal seasons. In addition, proposed plans to build a new 25,000-seat on-campus stadium have been criticized by local residents, who question the accuracy of paid attendance figures released by the university.

Jones said he suspects there is a huge difference between paid attendance, which is the only record Tulane is required to release by the NCAA, and turnstile attendance, the actual number of people who attended football games.

“Residents around the stadium are saying, ‘You don’t need to build a stadium that’s nearly this big because your attendance isn’t nearly this big,’” Jones said.

Jones asked SMG for attendance figures in May. The company refused to grant the records request, claiming that as a private company, it is not required to release the records.

Under Louisiana state law, when a public entity hires a private entity to run a state-owned facility, those records are public because the private company is essentially acting as the state, said Scott Sternberg, a Louisiana attorney and a member of the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network who is assisting Jones.

“You can’t escape public records laws just by hiring a private person or company to do your job for you,” Sternberg said.

Louisiana’s Division of Administration is responsible for the contract with SMG. In June, Jones requested the attendance figures from that department, citing the state as the custodian of the records. A member of the department’s general counsel emailed Jones in July reiterating SMG’s position.

“SMG maintains the requested records are not public and declines to release them,” David Boggs wrote.

Sternberg said it’s the state’s responsibility to obtain the records from contractors. The lawsuit asks the state to compel SMG to turn over the records.

SMG manages more than 220 public assembly facilities across the globe, including seven in Louisiana, according to its website. SMG has managed the Superdome since 1977.

“This is nonsense,” said Scott Jones, Ryan Jones’ father and the primary attorney on the case. “It’s a big national corporation, and they been basically playing around because they think they’re the big kid on the block. They’ve been kind of bullying around the student newspaper.”

A spokesman for the Division of Adminisation declined to comment on the case. SMG officials could not be reached.

Following this through to the end is a valuable lesson for the Hullabaloo and its writers, Ryan Jones said.

“I can’t see anything that would leave much more of a lasting impression than trying to obtain these records from a company that’s much bigger than you, from the state, and being told no and then preserving to the end and ultimately obtaining the records you were looking for and ending up with a great story because you persevered.”

By Samantha Raphelson, SPLC Staff Writer. Contact Raphelson by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.