Author John Krakauer was denied documents describing how the University System handled a rape case involving former star Griz quarterback Jordan Johnson in a Montana Supreme Court ruling this July. The records allegedly detail Johnson’s — referred to as “John Doe” in court documents — reinstatement to the University after he was accused of rape and expelled in 2012. The 4-3 court decision set a legal precedent prioritizing an individual’s right to privacy over the public’s right to access government information.
“This case is not about protecting John Doe’s purported privacy rights — those rights, if they ever existed, evaporated long ago when Jordan Johnson committed actions alleged to have been illegal and/or unbecoming of a student athlete,” Krakauer’s attorney Mike Meloy stated in a 2018 court document. “This case is about protecting the public’s paramount right to know in the absence of any reasonable counter-vailing privacy interests.”
Krakauer, the author of notable works “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air,” published “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” in 2015. His book highlighted the shortcomings in the University’s process for reporting sexual assault. He included stories from multiple women, but the central narrative revolved around a rape accusation against then-quarterback Johnson.
While UM expelled Johnson after the accusation, he was reinstated after appealing the decision to the Montana Office of Commissioner of Higher Education, headed by Clay Christian. Johnson was acquitted by a jury in Missoula County Court in 2013.
In 2014, Krakauer requested records describing Commissioner Christian’s actions before Johnson’s readmittance, which the commissioner declined to provide. Krakauer sued, bringing the issue to Lewis and Clark County District Court. He finally won the right to view a redacted version of the documents in 2018.
However, the Office of the Commissioner appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court twice. On July 3, the Supreme Court reversed the Missoula District Court’s verdict. In the Court’s case summary, Montana Supreme Court Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote, “Doe [Jordan Johnson] has an enhanced privacy interest in his educational records based on the federal and state laws protecting his privacy rights… His expectation of privacy is one that society is willing to recognize as reasonable.”
According to McKinnon, the court took fault with the manner in which Krakauer made his request for records. She argued that Krakauer’s request was solely targeted at retrieving records related to Commissioner Christian and Johnson, making it clear that Krakauer “is not interested in the Commissioner’s handling of sexual assault investigations generally; he is interested in only the Commissioner’s handling of Doe’s investigation because Doe is a high-profile athlete.”
The Court also ruled that Krakauer will be unable to reintroduce his petition for the records, and he will be denied attorney fees — a precedent that could deter the public from seeking out state records in the future. Unless Krakauer appeals the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision could be the end of his five-year battle to retrieve Johnson’s records.