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NCAA gives ground in Florida records dispute

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  1. Freedom of Information
In response to a lawsuit alleging that it was violating Florida's open record law, the National Collegiate Athletic Association agreed…

In response to a lawsuit alleging that it was violating Florida’s open record law, the National Collegiate Athletic Association agreed Tuesday to let Florida State University transcribe, redact and release a document regarding sanctions in an academic scandal, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

However, the proposed solution is unlikely to settle the dispute raised by The Associated Press and a long list of Florida new organizations, because the NCAA continues to maintain that it is not subject to the state’s law. The lawyer for the media plaintiffs, Rachel Fugate, called the NCAA’s conditioned authorization "absolutely insane," according to the Democrat.

A complaint filed Monday describes a scheme apparently meant to allow the NCAA to electronically communicate documents to the school without creating a public record under the state’s Public Records Act. The document at issue in the lawsuit is the NCAA’s response to FSU’s appeal in an athletic department cheating scandal. The NCAA posted its response to a secure Web site that does not allow saving, printing or copying.

FSU authorized a law firm to access the Web site on its behalf, but only after signing a confidentiality agreement prohibiting the release of the NCAA response. FSU and the law firm have since refused to release the document and declined requests to view the document on a computer screen. The news organizations have formally asked FSU for the NCAA response and related documents, but the school insisted it could not provide the response, because the NCAA is in control of it.

The heart of the lawsuit is the charge that FSU, the law firm and the NCAA illegally withheld the response. By maintaining custody of the response, the NCAA is an "agency" subject to Florida’s public records laws, the complaint states. The law firm also became subject to the law when it accessed the response and communicated its contents to FSU officials. The complaint says FSU is complicit in an illegal plan to skirt the law, noting that the NCAA had never previously given a document to FSU in this manner.

The lawsuit also alleges that the NCAA is in illegal possession of a public record and that related documents, including instructions to log in to the NCAA’s secure Web site, must be released.

The media plaintiffs asked the court for an immediate hearing and an order requiring the defendants to provide the requested documents.

After the NCAA changed is stance Tuesday, FSU began working to transcribe the response and redact students’ names, the Democrat reported. That doesn’t resolve the question of the NCAA’s obligations under Florida’s open records law, though.

"The NCAA is the custodian of the document and it is incumbent upon them to release the public records or enable FSU to do so," a spokesperson for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum told the Democrat. "A transcription is not sufficient — the law requires an actual reproduction."