A Florida appeals court upheld Florida’s open meetings law today and ordered the National Collegiate Athletic Association to hand over documents related to secret disciplinary proceedings against Florida State University.
FSU met with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions behind closed doors on Oct. 28, 2008 to explain a self-reported 2007 rules violation. The NCAA issued its response to last year’s meeting with the university on June 2. When media organizations made records requests, school officials denied them, citing a cyber confidentiality pact with the NCAA.
FSU officials told reporters that the school’s outside counsel entered a confidentiality agreement with the NCAA that prevented them releasing the documents, which the NCAA made available to FSU in a read-only format through a password-protected Web site.
Media outrage ensued, said Bob Gabordi, executive editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, FSU’s hometown newspaper. He quoted his own June blog post, in which he called the Web site "a technological work-around" unworthy of a public records law exemption.
Twenty-six media outlets filed suit against the NCAA and FSU, arguing that FSU’s status as a state university meant the NCAA response and any other documents exchanged via the secret Web site were public records. In August, Leon County Circuit Court Judge John C. Cooper agreed. He ordered the handover of the two documents the outlets requested — the committee’s 350-page meeting transcript and the June 2 response.
Then the NCAA — but not FSU — appealed, and a three-judge panel upheld the decision today, saying that FSU’s status as a state-funded university made all documents lawyers used to prepare the school’s defense public that were not exempt under federal student protection laws.
The NCAA still has time to ask for a rehearing or appeal. Bob Williams, an NCAA spokesman, said, “The NCAA is reviewing the Court’s decision and we are considering our options."
Carol Jean LoCicero, a lawyer for the media companies, said this is the first time the state’s media has mounted an open records suit against this type of technological evasion. “It’s not just about winning a lawsuit,” she said. “It’s about our Florida constitutional right to know what the government is doing.”
The NCAA argued that enforcing the state’s open records law against them would discriminate against interstate commerce or impose a burden unlike that of other states, but Judge Philip J. Padovano, writing for the court, disagreed. “This case arose in Florida, but it is likely that the NCAA would be dealing with the same issue had it arisen most anywhere in the United States,” he wrote.
Gabordi said he fears the NCAA will retaliate against Florida’s state universities by stripping them of their due process rights. “They claim to be this organization that levels the playing field, but that’s not what they’re doing anymore,” he said.
Gabordi commended the work of his reporters and other media organizations who fought for the records in spite of the economic hits media companies have taken in recent years. He said an NCAA win would have rendered the state’s open record law meaningless.
“Of course the media is going to continue in our role to stand up for these things,” he said. “It’s just what we do.”