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SPJ joins amicus brief in Montana open records case


Feb. 19, 2015

Dana Neuts, SPJ President, 360-920-1737 (PDT), dneuts@spj.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief, authored by the Student Press Law Center, in an open records case on appeal before the Montana Supreme Court. The case involves access to the records of a campus disciplinary appeal involving accusations of sexual assault at the University of Montana by a member of the school’s football team in 2012.

Jon Krakauer, author of "Into the Wild" and "Under the Banner of Heaven," is working on a book about sexual assaults at universities and sought information in the case involving the university’s quarterback, Jordan Johnson. Johnson was named in a disciplinary complaint of sexual assault and was found "responsible" in a closed-door campus disciplinary hearing. However, the discipline was overturned by the university chancellor. Krakauer wants the chancellor’s files indicating how that decision was reached.

Krakauer agreed to accept the records with all names except Johnson’s blacked out. Furthermore, since Johnson was tried in open criminal court on the charges – and acquitted –there is no realistic privacy interest on his part, Krakauer argues.

Krakauer won at trial on a limited application of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, known as "FERPA," which has been used expansively by colleges and universities not only protect records documenting student academic achievement but also everything from student disciplinary information to student parking tickets. On appeal, the U.S. Department of Education filed a brief supporting the university and its blanket proposition that student disciplinary files are always protected from disclosure by FERPA. SPJ, SPLC and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, on the other hand, support Krakauer’s case and the lower court’s limited interpretation of FERPA.

The First Amendment guarantees the press and the public a right of access to criminal trials, including pretrial proceedings, and documents submitted in connection with them. In its role as a free press and free speech advocate, SPJ initiates and joins amicus briefs to support First Amendment and open records cases.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.


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