America's Newspapers has awarded a $5,000 grant to the Austin American-Statesman (Texas) from its new Open Government Litigation Fund to assist the newspaper in its ongoing public records dispute with the University of Texas-Austin.
The Statesman’s public records lawsuit is part of a nationwide investigative reporting effort by Gannett’s USA TODAY Network into the questionable practice by major intercollegiate athletic programs to recruit and admit athletes expelled for sexual assault by other academic institutions.
Requests for records to public universities across the country resulted in Gannett obtaining records in some instances and not others, even within the same state. The Statesman sued The University of Texas at Austin following its refusal to produce the requested expulsion and transfer records and won access in a hearing before the trial court in Austin. The Statesman is defending its victory in an appeal by the university to the state intermediate court of appeals. Given the intensity of the university’s opposition to releasing the records requested by the Statesman, the case could eventually end up before the Texas Supreme Court.
The Statesman’s lead counsel in the case against the University of Texas, John Bussian, commented: “The case arose at a time when America’s Newspapers Open Government Litigation Fund had just become operational. And it turned out that this is exactly the kind of cause the fund is designed to help support. The alliance with America’s Newspapers in a case like this is a first, and the hope is that early success here will spur other members of America’s Newspapers to mount legal challenges to government actors blocking public access to records and meetings."
Patrick Dorsey, publisher of the Austin American-Statesman, said: "The Statesman is committed to fighting for the rightful access to public records, especially when such serious consequences are at stake. We appreciate America's Newspapers adding its support as we defend our victory for access in the court of appeals."
Last fall, when the Statesman filed suit against UT-Austin over the school's refusal to supply records related to students disciplined for sexual misconduct, Statesman Executive Editor John Bridges said federal law makes it clear that universities are free to disclose the information the paper is seeking.
"It's disheartening that the University of Texas, given an opportunity for openness and transparency, chose instead to keep these records from the public."
The Open Government Litigation Fund is designed to assist members of America's Newspapers that are engaged in lawsuits supporting the First Amendment rights of newspapers and the public's right to know.
The Fund is dedicated to providing support for necessary legal action — primarily the initial costs of drafting, filing and serving a lawsuit — to enforce the public’s right to know through access to government records and meetings.
Any member may submit a written request for assistance from the Fund with a state public records or open meetings lawsuit or with a federal Freedom of Information Act-based claim.
All requests are reviewed by a subcommittee of the Legal Affairs and Lobbying Committee, which will make a formal recommendation to the chairman of the committee for action by the Executive Committee of the full board of America’s Newspapers.
A member may make one request in a new case per year.
Funding is limited to $5,000 per lawsuit, including appeals, subject to the Fund’s capacity at the time of the member’s request.
Members receiving funding are obligated to seek recovery of legal expenses in each lawsuit, wherever possible, and to reimburse the Fund if legal expenses are recovered by the requesting member.
Written requests for assistance should be submitted to CEO Dean Ridings at email@example.com.
For additional information, contact Ridings at (847) 282-9850, ext. 105, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.