In all the recent attention given to the Montana State Supreme Court and its split decision in a case involving famous author Jon Krakauer and former University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson, one very key point has been missed.
We'd like to pause on it for a minute.
You see, by the time the case arrived at the Supreme Court, some specifics of the case had given way to the legal technicalities. That's understandable.
The case hinged on whether Krakauer, who has been dogged in the search for context and facts regarding the Johnson case, had a right to see some of the information the university had about a student, in this case, Johnson, a high profile athlete who was accused of and acquitted of sexual assault.
Originally, the University of Montana had made the decision to expel Johnson after the charges surfaced. But, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian overturned the expulsion and allowed Johnson to stay.
The legal case centered around a state constitutional issue: Whether Johnson's right to privacy was more important than the public's right to know.
On a split decision, 4-3, the high court ruled that Krakauer's request was overly broad and not everything should be released. It said that Johnson's individual right to privacy, guaranteed by the state constitution, outweighed the public's right to know.
It's a point that has been made previously, but bears repeating: Krakauer wasn't asking for his grades or his physical exams from the athletic trainers in the football program. Instead, he wanted to know the correspondence and the deliberations that led Christian and his office to overturn the university's expulsion.
The commissioner's office has been tight-lipped on the case, insisting consistently that the student's right to privacy has always prohibited them from talking specifically about the particulars. And, it's an argument the state's high court ultimately bought, albeit narrowly.
It's important to note the court also said in its ruling that Krakauer's request was broad and a more specific request may have yielded different results which leaves open the possibility that the request for public information may yet yield answers.
Lost in all this legal maneuvering is the heart of the matter which has very little to do with the state constitution or legal precedent.
Instead, what is truly at issue is appearances. From all appearances, it looks like the commissioner himself interjected in the expulsion of a star quarterback. And that looks bad. It looks like the worst kind of favoritism. A star athlete who could bring home trophies gets preferential treatment from the highest power in the university system.
That's how it looks.
We doubt the truth is that clear and convincing. But, because the commissioners has remained steadfastly mum on the issue, we can only draw those kind of conclusions. Sadly, those same conclusions only reinforce the idea that the University of Montana didn't do right in the case of sexual assault. That perception still presents a marketing challenge for the state's flagship university, even though there have been years of effort put into truly changing the culture in Missoula.
The public does have a right to know the circumstances and specific facts of why Johnson was originally expelled and what happened to lead the commissioners office to get involved. That seems pretty dramatic.
Though skeptics may say this seems to be a case of star athletes getting preferential treatment, it's just as fair to wonder if Christian's office had interceded because it was worried about due process, or if it was concerned that Johnson had become a scapegoat in a mounting public relations crisis?
While that may be Pollyanna-ish thinking, that's exactly the point: We don't know. And because we don't know, it causes the average citizen to question and doubt, which ultimately keeps the issue alive for the University of Montana. As long as the Jordan Johnson case lives on, the perception will persist that the Missoula campus has a problem.
In the long run, the only hope the public and the university has of putting the Jordan Johnson incident to rest is by a full, open and transparent accounting of the facts. That can only happen when the truth is known.
Because of the Supreme Court decision, we don't know the facts, but we're beginning to think those have to be more tame than the years-long rumor mill that will continue to grind on until the truth is finally disclosed.