Back in October, as officials at North Dakota State University refused to make public what discipline a group of Bison football players would face from either the university or the athletics department after they forged thousands of signatures on two petitions, I filed an open records request for the information.
Today Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued an opinion on my request, and found that NDSU did violate open records laws in denying my request, but even though I won that “battle” I lost the “war” for the information.
NDSU was in violation of open records laws for refusing to cite for me the specific law which allowed them to deny my request, according to Stenehjem (full opinion below). But, also according to Stenehjem, the records related to the punishments for these athletes aren’t public.
Here’s where things get weird.
Under FERPA – a federal law protecting student privacy – I could have obtained the records as long as there was no way for me to tell which disciplinary records belonged to which students. “It was widely reported in the media, as well as on Mr. Port’s blog, that there were 10 NDSU football players criminally charged in the matter,” reads the opinion. “The names of these players were also reported. If NDSU turned over 10 different folders of redacted materials, then it would still be known that each of the players had a disciplinary file on record with the University, and the existence of the disciplinary file is protected.”
That sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel. In order to find out whether or not these students faced any sort of punishment from the university or the athletics department, we can’t know the identities of the students. If we know the identities of the students, we’re not allowed to know if they faced any sort of team or university consequences for their criminal actions.
It’s a Catch-22, and a convenient one for administrators at NDSU who can use this legal mumbo-jumbo to give them plausible deniability when accused of giving these players a pass. Which they almost certainly did.
What’s also strange is that I specifically requested any information about discipline from the athletics department. The universities announce discipline for student athletes who break laws all the time. University of North Dakota hockey players had their team suspensions announced publicly after they threw a team party. At NDSU, a similar incident involving alcohol and a group of female softball players also resulted in public announcements of punishments.
Are the universities breaking federal law every time they announce these punishments? Apparently, according to this AG’s opinion. Maybe some of the players should sue.
Or maybe we should change the law.
If federal law really gives the universities the right to cover up accountability measures for student athletes – and apparently it does – then the federal law needs to be changed.