The Montana Supreme Court issued a concerning decision when it denied author Jon Krakauer access to records detailing the Commissioner of Higher Education’s intervention in the recommended expulsion of University of Montana star football player accused of rape by a fellow student.

The high court ruled 4-3 earlier this month that UM quarterback Jordan Johnson’s right to privacy superseded the public’s right to know in the case. Johnson was acquitted of the charges at trial.

When he was accused of rape in 2012, UM administrators, including then President Royce Engstrom, recommended Johnson’s expulsion from the university. Johnson appealed to U-system Commissioner Clay Christian and Johnson remained enrolled at UM. Krakauer sought any documents associated with Christian’s actions on the case as part of research he was doing for the book “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.”

It’s no secret that the handling of Johnson’s and other sexual assault cases is a sore spot for UM and a likely factor in enrollment declines there. How these cases were handled is of compelling interest to the taxpaying public that helps fund the U-system. And the issue will only be fully resolved when all the pertinent information is made public.

During Johnson’s trial, evidence and testimony related to the case was made public. Krakauer was not seeking any additional information on Johnson, only on what Christian did that prevented Johnson’s expulsion and the justification for that action. The U-System maintains it needed to protect Johnson. Frankly, it appears more interested in protecting Christian.

In his dissenting opinion to the ruling, Justice Jim Rice asked, “Did the commissioner make a decision on appropriate legal grounds? Did he exhibit favoritism? Was he subject to outside influence?” All appropriate questions.

Justice Rice further wrote, “In light of the critical importance of the right to know, I believe that conclusion is error.”

Not only is it in error, it sets a dangerous precedent for keeping matters of public interest secret. Krakauer has said he may ask the court to reconsider its decision or appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

We wish the author well in those endeavors. Getting all information pertaining to how the state U-system handled sexual assault cases is of vital interest to all Montanans.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Don Beeman, community member
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Sarabeth Rees, community member
  • David Swingle, community member

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