Sweeping under rugs
Sexual assault is a serious cause for concern at any university, and when student athletes are involved, the cases can cause a media sensation. Recent developments in an assault case involving two former football players at the University of Iowa in Iowa City have caused more than the usual furor.
In addition to the criminal trial, open records lawsuits, inquiries into the university’s handling of the case and accusations of former administrators suing for wrongful termination have sent the university into a media relations nightmare.
On the night of Oct. 13, 2007, a female athlete says she was raped in an unoccupied room in her dormitory by football players Abe Satterfield and Cedric Everson. The woman went to the Athletic Department, where she was told that an informal investigation would allow the matter to be resolved quickly.
In a letter to the university in November 2007, the woman’s mother contends her daughter was harassed by Satterfield, Everson and their friends following the assault and that no steps were taken to remove her from the situation until she brought the case to the police. The complainant also discovered that the Athletic Department had not told her that a third student had allegedly been involved, and that this student had been living down the hall for several weeks.
The local newspaper, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, filed a lawsuit in January 2008 to obtain records relating to the school’s investigation into the alleged sexual assault when UI failed to deliver all of the requested documents within the 20-day time limit. The university refused to release around 2,400 pages of documents, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and other privacy laws. Both professional and student journalists have encountered a recurring conflict in the case between open records requirements and student privacy laws.
The Press-Citizen requested the incident report as well as other documents relating to the alleged assault soon after it occurred.
“We asked many different officials about these rumors, and they basically wouldn’t respond,” said Jim Lewers, executive editor for the Press-Citizen. “And then once the university did acknowledge that this investigation was going on, they wouldn’t answer other questions or release other documents.”
The university released several hundred pages of documents in September 2008, along with an index of all withheld documents and the reasoning for withholding them. Lewers said he did not know why the university initially withheld these documents only to release them voluntarily 11 months later. Diane Staley of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the university in the lawsuit, said that the documents were released because they were not of a confidential nature and part of the public record, but she declined to comment on why the documents were not released during the initial request period.
Olivia Moran, the courts reporter for the student newspaper, said she has encountered problems when tracking documents between multiple attorneys once the information was released.
“I’ve been having a little bit of trouble getting documents from the university because they’re still kind of unsure as to which documents they can release,” she said.
Staley cited three main types of confidentiality affecting the documents being withheld: student privacy laws, including FERPA and the corresponding Iowa law protecting student records; medical records protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accessibility Act (HIPAA); and matters of attorney-client privilege. These documents include administrator letters and e-mails concerning the case, a summary of the alleged incident given to University Housing and two letters from the female student’s mother.
The university did not release these letters to the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs all of the public universities in Iowa, during its initial investigation. The Regents did not learn of them until they were published in the newspaper.
There is a dispute over why these letters were not released during the first investigation. UI President Sally Mason told the Board that the university incorrectly interpreted student privacy laws to mean that the letters were to be kept private, said the Press-Citizen.
A second investigation conducted by the Stolar Partnership, an independent law firm, concluded that there had been no cover-up but that the university had made several mistakes in handling the case. The report cited general counsel Marcus Mills and Vice President of Student Services Phillip Jones as following university policy but not doing enough to protect the alleged victim. Both Mills and Jones have been fired for their role in the investigation, and Jones is pursuing legal action for wrongful termination. University officials are standing by the Stolar report. In the event that Jones’ case goes to trial, he could produce evidence to the contrary.
The Press-Citizen’s lawsuit has yet to be decided. In a brief it released in September, the university claimed that because the Press-Citizen knows the names of the football players and the alleged victim, there is no way to redact all identifying information so all the records should be withheld.
After the Des Moines Register, a newspaper about 110 miles away in Des Moines, Iowa, requested records related to student sexual assaults over the past three years, the university filed a lawsuit seeking a ruling on which records it is obligated to release. Lee Rood, the Register’s special projects editor, believes the lawsuit will be dropped. The Register sent the university another open records request that said the university’s lawsuit set bad precedent.
“Before outlining a new request, I would like to state for the record how disappointed I am that no good-faith effort was made whatsoever to provide the answers sought,” the letter stated.
Lewers said that although the case could drag on for months, the Press-Citizen will continue to push for the documents.
“Now we know their side of how many documents, and we know why in general terms, and we also have the documents released [with the report],” said Lewers. “But we still would argue that many, many more of those documents should be released, and so we’re certainly pursuing our case.”
reports, Winter 2008-09