Court orders U. of Montana to release disciplinary records to author Jon Krakauer

MONTANA — The University of Montana must turn over to author Jon Krakauer any records involving a football player accused of raping a woman in 2012, a district court ruled Thursday.

Krakauer, author of “Into the Wild” and “Under the Banner of Heaven,” is working on a book about sexual assaults at universities and was seeking information about the 2012 case involving the university’s quarterback, Jordan Johnson.

According to the Helena District Court ruling on Thursday, the university must release the records to Krakauer — with redactions to the player’s name, birth date, social security number, address and phone number — within 21 days. Kevin McCrae, the spokesman for the university’s commissioner of Higher Education, said the institution has not decided whether it will appeal the court’s ruling.

Johnson, who is a senior, was accused of raping a female acquaintance, but was acquitted in a district court in 2013, The Associated Press reported. Before the court case, an unidentified student, later identified as Johnson, appealed a university court’s decision for expulsion to Clayton Christian, the commissioner of Higher Education.

In January, Krakauer requested records about the appeal from Christian, since there was no record of any actions taken by Christian, the AP Reported. However, Christian did not grant Krakauer’s records because the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the state constitution exempt the records from public disclosure.

Montana’s constitution contains a right of access to public records, but an exception for when “the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

The court ruled, however, that neither law gives Christian the right to deny the existence of the records, let alone the right to withhold disciplinary records and the identities of the students involved. The court ruled that documents with the names and identifiable information redacted, which is what Krakauer was asking for, are not protected by FERPA.

Frank LoMonte, the Student Press Law Center’s executive director, said the court’s ruling is “common sense” and “completely consistent with the intent” of FERPA.

“Even though college attorneys like to think that every single record they have is a FERPA record, yet another court has told them otherwise,” he said. “The most important thing about this ruling is that the judge recognized that you can’t throw a cloak of privacy over things that are already widespread public knowledge.”

While Mike Meloy, Krakauer’s attorney, said he is “delighted” with the outcome of the ruling, McCrae said the university will confer with the U.S. Department of Education on whether FERPA was fairly applied before making a decision to appeal the ruling.

“Our goal is to get this right, not just settle an argument,” he said. “But whatever we do, we’re going to try to get informed before we move forward.”

SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.