Tennessee appellate court rules campus rape records are not open to public

TENNESSEE — A state appellate judge has ruled that records about an alleged rape involving four former Vanderbilt University football players are not open to the public because the investigation is ongoing.

The appellate court’s decision, which reversed a county court’s earlier decision, determined that none of the records are publicly available because of a law that exempts investigatory records from disclosure, the Courthouse News reported.

In June 2013, the players were charged with five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery each, The Tennessean reported. They were removed from the team the next month.

After the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department denied The Tennessean’s public records request for information about the case, the Nashville-based newspaper filed suit against the police department in February. The lawsuit claimed that any records that were created by nongovernmental entities and obtained by the police are not exempt from the state’s open records law.

Joining in on the lawsuit was The Associated Press, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Knoxville News Sentinel, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, WBIR-TV in Knoxville and Nashville stations WTVF-TV Channel 5, WSMV-TV Channel 4 and WZTV-TV Fox 17.

In March, a Davidson County Chancery Court judge partially ruled in favor with the media companies and agreed that some of the records were open because they did not interfere with the investigation. These records included text messages, as well as university access card information, campus video and emails written by witnesses and defendants as long as they did not address the police or district attorney’s office.

“What happened in that dormitory and any examination of the conduct of Vanderbilt students and employees regarding the incident in question are newsworthy,” Perkins wrote, “but the Court’s review of the records and of the text messages shed very little light on official government conduct.”

Deborah Fisher, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government executive director, wrote a column Monday criticizing the appellate court’s ruling. The TCOG was also a plaintiff in the case.

“The Court of Appeals in Nashville last week kicked the can farther down the wrong road when it expanded police powers so they could keep just about anything and everything they want secret from citizens,” she wrote.