The Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court's ruling that compels the Michigan State University Police Department to release public records involving MSU athletes to ESPN.
ESPN filed a public records request in September 2014 seeking incident reports involving Spartan football and men's basketball players from 2009-2014. The university released certain records but removed the names and identifying information about suspects, victims and witnesses, citing privacy laws.
ESPN and investigative reporter Paula Lavigne sued in February, seeking the release of all information requested. A trial court ruled in ESPN's favor -- compelling the release of suspects' names -- but exempted identifying information from witnesses and victims, even if they were athletes. But MSU appealed the decision, saying the lower court did not properly apply the privacy exemption as required by state law.
On Monday, the appellate court agreed with the lower court's initial ruling, noting: "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."
ESPN and Lavigne sought the records as part of an investigation that examined interactions between local police and college athletes at 10 major colleges, including MSU. The project attempted to determine how often crimes involving college athletes are prosecuted and what factors influence them. Outside the Lines requested police reports involving all football and men's basketball players on rosters from 2009 to 2014 from campus and city police departments covering 10 major programs: Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan State, Missouri, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Texas A&M and Wisconsin. Some police departments withheld records citing state disclosure laws. (ESPN sued the University of Notre Dame and Michigan State University for not releasing material; the Notre Dame case remains on appeal.) And not all information was uniform among jurisdictions.
Overall, though, the Outside the Lines investigation, which published and aired in June, found that what occurred between high-profile college athletes when they faced criminal allegations and law enforcement was not as simple as the commonly held perception that police and prosecutors simply show preferential treatment to athletes, though that did occur. Rather, an examination of more than 2,000 police documents showed that athletes from the 10 schools, including Michigan State, mainly benefited from the confluence of factors that can be reality at major sports programs: the near-immediate access to high-profile attorneys, the intimidation that is felt by witnesses who accuse athletes, and the higher bar some criminal justice officials feel needs to be met in high-profile cases.
An Outside the Lines analysis comparing cases involving Michigan State athletes and a sample of cases involving college-age males in East Lansing showed no substantial overall difference in how, or whether, the cases were prosecuted. Several incidents from Michigan State campus police were not able to be analyzed, though, because of the ongoing dispute involving ESPN's public records requests.
A statement Wednesday from ESPN said: "We are pleased with the appellate court's decision to uphold the public's right to open records, and we continue to report on this story."