HELENA – A judge has ordered the conditional release of records about a University of Montana rape case to author Jon Krakauer after a four-year dispute that pitted student privacy against the public’s right to know the decisions their government agencies make.
But the legal wrangling likely isn’t over yet, and the records’ release to the public will be delayed beyond the judge’s May 23 deadline if Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian appeals to the state Supreme Court.
The author of “Into Thin Air” and “Into the Wild” said Wednesday that he expects the commissioner’s office to appeal, but added that the yearslong delay in releasing the records does not diminish their importance.
“We still need to be told the truth about how Montana’s state-funded universities handle rape accusations,” Krakauer told The Associated Press in an email.
Krakauer requested the records four years ago when he was writing the 2015 book “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.”
Krakauer sought to learn whether and why Christian overturned a campus decision to expel University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson for violating the school’s code of conduct over a 2012 rape allegation by a female student.
Johnson was the starting quarterback for the Grizzlies when the accusation was made. He was acquitted of the rape charge in state court and received $245,000 in a settlement of a lawsuit he filed claiming that the university mishandled its investigation of the rape allegation.
Before Johnson’s case went to state court, it went through the university’s disciplinary process – which concluded the rape most likely occurred and that Johnson should be expelled. Then-university president Royce Engstrom upheld the expulsion, and Johnson appealed to Christian.
Johnson was not expelled, and records were never made public on the decision let him stay enrolled at the school and what Christian may have done to reverse the decision or why.
Johnson returned to school and to the football team, where he played the 2013 and 2014 seasons. After he left school, he had a brief stint with the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Redblacks before being cut in 2015.
Krakauer is seeking documents that will shed light on whether Christian intervened.
The Montana University System argued against releasing the documents, saying the action would violate student privacy and a federal law that could threaten the University of Montana’s federal funding.
The Montana Supreme Court in 2016 ordered the confidential review of the records by a judge to determine whether they should be released publicly. On March 16, Lewis and Clark County District Judge Mike Menahan wrote his order that said redacted versions of the records could be released and still protect the privacy of students involved in the proceedings.
The judge ordered the records not to be released until May 23, to give enough time for another appeal by the commissioner’s office to the Montana Supreme Court.
If an appeal is filed, the release of the documents will be put on hold.
Montana University System spokeswoman Blair Fjeseth said a decision has not yet been made on whether to appeal. A court document filed Friday by Christian’s attorney left open the possibility.
It asked the judge to modify his order to include attorney’s fees, and asked Menahan to delay the new order “pending exhaustion of any timely filed appeals.”
Menahan’s order was first reported by the Missoulian.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.