If ESPN’s Sports Center had a “Top 10” for judicial decisions, this one would be on it for sure. An appellate court in Michigan earlier this week ruled that ESPN is entitled to the names of Michigan State University student-athletes who were listed as suspects in incident reports. For a public access advocate like me, the decision is a no brainer. But the court’s rationale is a valuable response to those folks who feel the media is merely out to sensationalize information.
In September 2014, ESPN submitted a request to MSU under Michigan’s freedom of information act asking it to provide incident reports involving a list of student-athletes over a specific period of time. The University produced two sets of records, but redacted the names and identifying information of the suspects, victims, and witnesses. MSU contended that the information was “of a personal nature” and its disclosure would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”
Both the trial court and the appellate court sided with ESPN. In the appellate court’s view, even conceding the dubious contention that criminal incident reports contain information of a “personal nature” the release of the names simply did not constitute an unwarranted invasion of any individual’s privacy. And this is why:
The disclosure of the names of the student-athletes who were identified as suspects in the reports serves the public understanding of the operation of the University’s police department. ESPN seeks the information to learn whether policing standards are consistent and uniform at a public institution of higher learning. The disclosure of the names is necessary to this purpose. In order to determine whether the student-athletes were treated differently from the general student population or from each other on the basis of the student-athlete’s participation in a particular sport or the renown of the student-athlete, it is necessary to know the student-athlete’s name and the nature of the allegations involved in the investigation. Only then can ESPN compare and contrast the information within the requested reports to both other incident reports and other cases disclosed via news media. Further, ESPN requires the student-athletes’ names in order to facilitate further investigation into whether other governmental agencies agreed with the University’s handling of a particular student-athlete’s case. Consequently, even if revealing the names of the student-athletes in the context of the reports amounts to the revelation of information of a personal nature, that revelation is not unwarranted. . . . Under the circumstances, the public’s interest in government accountability must prevail “over an individual’s, or a group of individuals’, expectation of privacy.”
There is a tendency among some high volume social media commenters to assume that the media seeks information for no purpose other than to sensationalize events or embarrass the subjects of the report. And that is simply not true. Investigative journalism requires investigation. And an investigation means looking at information and testing theories. How a state university (and potentially other state officials higher up) deals with criminal conduct among student athletes is a worthwhile issue to investigate. This decision wisely recognizes that point.