BOZEMAN — “Into the Wild” author Jon Krakauer and the public deserve to know why the University of Montana reversed its decision in 2012 to expel a star quarterback who was accused of rape, an attorney for the writer told the Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Krakauer watched from the audience as lawyer Mike Meloy spoke to the justices before a packed Montana State University auditorium. Meloy asked the court to uphold a lower judge’s ruling to release the documents about former quarterback Jordan Johnson’s disciplinary proceedings.
“We don’t care about the behavior of Jordan Johnson. We care about the behavior of the commissioner and the dean who reinstated him,” Meloy said. “Not only do we deserve to know that, the public is entitled to know that.”
An attorney for the Montana University System told the justices that releasing the documents Krakauer seeks would violate student privacy and an education law that could threaten the University of Montana’s federal funding. Plus, the documents’ release may prevent future students from testifying in disciplinary proceedings for fear their identities could be made public, attorney Viv Hammill said.
“Most importantly, we want to keep student confidentiality … because we want students to come forward and report and seek help,” Hammill said.
The justices did not make an immediate ruling after the arguments.
In 2014, Krakauer requested records of any action Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian took in the disciplinary proceedings against Johnson, who was accused of rape by another student. Krakauer 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 told The Associated Press.
Johnson was acquitted of raping the woman in 2012. Before that case went to state court, it went through the university’s disciplinary process, which concluded the rape most likely occurred and Johnson should be expelled.
University President Royce Engstrom upheld the decision, and Johnson appealed to Christian.
Johnson was not expelled, and it is unclear what action Christian may have taken to reverse the decision or why.
Krakauer said he believes, based on a reference to the case in a U.S. Justice Department letter, that Christian sent the case back to the university with instructions to use a higher standard of proof before deciding to expel Johnson.
University system spokesman Kevin McRae said he cannot speak about individual cases.
“Families and students have an expectation when they enroll in school that colleges and universities will not be disseminating their records, whether that’s their grades, whether that’s their health information or that’s their conduct information,” McRae said after the hearing.
Christian’s attorneys said they could not legally comply with Krakauer’s records request 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.
Krakauer said he believes the university is hiding behind the federal law. He hopes his case will stop universities from using the law 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.”
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.