BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — "Into the Wild" author Jon Krakauer goes to the Montana Supreme Court Wednesday to demand the release of records that could explain whether the state's higher education commissioner reversed a decision to expel a University of Montana quarterback accused of rape.
But he hopes to accomplish more than that, Krakauer told The Associated Press Tuesday after arriving for the arguments at Montana State University in Bozeman. He hopes his case will stop universities from using a federal law called the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act to withhold documents that could shed light on how they deal with student sexual assaults.
"Until you have transparency, until we see how universities deal or don't deal with rape, this problem will not be solved," Krakauer said. "If my lawsuit helps get rid of FERPA and forces universities to be honest and open about how often rapes occur, how they are adjudicated, that should make it safer for women on campuses."
Krakauer requested records in 2014 of any action Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian took in the disciplinary proceedings against former Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson, who was accused of rape. Krakauer had sought the records for his book "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town," which was released in April 2015.
Krakauer said any information contained in the documents would be included in an afterword in future editions of the book. "The people of Montana, the people of the country, need to know what happened, why this seemingly preferential treatment happened," Krakauer said.
Johnson was acquitted of raping a female acquaintance in 2012. Before that case went to state court, it went through the university's disciplinary process that concluded the rape most likely had occurred and Johnson should be expelled.
The decision was upheld by university President Royce Engstrom, and Johnson appealed to Christian. Johnson was not expelled, and it is not clear what action Christian may have taken to reverse the decision, or his justification.
"The only thing we don't know about the Jordan Johnson scandal, really, the only substantive thing, is how come his university investigation, how come that finding of guilt was overturned? That's what I'm trying to find out," Krakauer said.
Christian's attorneys said Krakauer's request was denied because the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act prohibits the release of confidential student information, and the state could lose its federal education funding, including scholarship aid, if the documents are released.
They also said Johnson's privacy rights outweigh the public's right to know, and that Krakauer can't file a public-records request because he is a Colorado resident.
District Judge Kathy Seeley of Helena ruled for Krakauer after finding the federal education law threatens to withhold funding only if there is a systemic release of confidential information. A one-time release of information with the names of the students blacked out would not go against the federal law, she said.
Seeley also ruled that the Montana Constitution does not limit public access to documents and meetings to state citizens alone, and it offers such access to all people.
Christian is appealing that ruling.
Krakauer attorney Mike Meloy said in court filings that if the Supreme Court reverses Seeley's decision, it will have a serious effect on Montana's open government laws and policy. A reversal also would be an endorsement of the university's efforts to keep secret the university's treatment of student sexual assaults, he wrote.