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University Sexual Assault

In this April 26, 2016, file photo, "Into the Wild" author Jon Krakauer comments on his lawsuit against Montana's higher education commissioner in Bozeman. Krakauer's five-year quest to find out how and why Montana's top higher education official intervened to prevent a star college quarterback's expulsion over a rape accusation stalled Wednesday, July 3, 2019, when the state Supreme Court denied him access to those records.

Last week, in a very divided Montana State Supreme Court decision, the state's highest group of judges decided narrowly that noted author Jon Krakauer wasn't entitled to see documents related to a star college quarterback's expulsion because of an accusation of rape, and the role the Commissioner of Higher Education played overturning the decision to boot the athlete from the University of Montana campus.

The court ruled that the quarterback (and student's) privacy outweighed the public's right to know.

Montana law is an amazing thing: On one hand, it guarantees that the public has a right to see what its government and officials are doing, while at the same time, guaranteeing an individual's privacy.

This is the state constitutional collision course that often erupts and is subject to interpretation: Where does an individual's right to privacy end, and where does the public's right to know begin?

That was at the heart of the Krakauer case. 

The high court ruled that Jordan Johnson, the quarterback involved, had an individual right to privacy and so did his academic records. 

The court has to consistently and often weigh an individual's right to privacy with the public interest and its right to see what the government is doing. This was a huge part of the conversation. Krakauer had argued that he -- and the public -- should see the conversations and documents behind the case as a means of keeping leaders accountable. In other words: Did those leaders, including Commissioner Clayton Christian, act appropriately when it came to a star quarterback? Did he get preferential treatment that would not have been afforded an average student? And did the expulsion seem appropriate even though the person at the center was a star who may have helped the Montana team get to a national championship?

Those are all good questions, but the court found that because of the broad nature of Krakauer's request, it could not grant it. Doing so, the court reasoned, may set a dangerous precedent of allowing almost any part of any student's record to become public.

We understand that concern, even though we're disappointed with the high court's decision. And it should be noted that the ruling leaves open the door for another more specific, focused request. The Montana State Supreme Court ruled that Krakauer's request was too broad and that a differently worded request may have yielded better information.

For our part, we hope that some news organization or Krakauer, who wrote the wildly popular, "Missoula" which used the Montana town as a poster child for college sexual assault, continues to challenge this.

We believe that Montanans have a constitutional right to know what leaders who hold positions of public trust and power were doing as it relates to this case. We believe sexual assault on campus, coupled with university policies and procedures aimed at combating it are important. The public needs to see if a star quarterback is treated any differently. We need to understand how the state's flagship university treats such an allegation. Those are things that still remain cloudy because the university system has not fully released the records. And, transparency is the foundation of trust when it comes to government.

So, while we understand the Supreme Court's decision, we believe there's something important still worth fighting for. And, we believe it still has a great public interest as the University of Montana continues to repair its reputation from the book and from the incidents surrounding the Johnson case.

We hope a "no" now is not a "no" forever when it comes to shining a bright light on what really happened. 

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