Court orders NCAA to open records

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The NCAA must release documents on Florida State University's appeal of an academic cheating penalty because they are public records, a state appellate court ruled Thursday.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld a trial judge's decision last month ordering the college athletics organization to make the documents public after blacking out students' names.

That ruling had been on hold pending the appeal court's decision. It was not immediately clear when the documents would be released to The Associated Press and other media that sued the NCAA, Florida State and the university's outside law firm.

"This is a resounding victory for the public's right to know," said AP Assistant General Counsel Karen Kaiser.

NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said the organization was reviewing the decision and considering its options. They include asking the full 15-member district court to rehear the case or taking it to the Florida Supreme Court.

Attorney General Bill McCollum, whose office intervened, said the ruling "emphasizes the importance of applying the public records laws to new and evolving technologies."

The NCAA tried to keep the documents secret by putting them on a read-only, secure Web site that could be accessed by Florida State's outside lawyers rather than sending them to the university on paper or through conventional electronic means such as e-mail.

Florida's open-records "sunshine" law covers "documents maintained on a computer in the same way that it would apply to those kept in a file cabinet," wrote District Judge Philip Padovano.

The documents relate to Florida State's appeal of an NCAA sanction to strip coaches and athletes of wins in 10 sports.

That includes football coach Bobby Bowden, who stands to lose 14 victories. It would dim his chances of again becoming major college football's winningest coach. Bowden has 384 victories -- two behind Penn State's Joe Paterno.

The case focused on two documents -- the transcript of a hearing the NCAA held on the school's appeal at its Indianapolis headquarters and the university's response to the proposed penalty. The school, though, already has released the response after manually transcribing it from the read-only Web site.

The NCAA argued the documents are not public records because they never were received by the university as required by the sunshine law. Circuit Judge John C. Cooper of Tallahassee ruled Aug. 21 that the university had in fact received the documents even though it didn't have physical custody of them because its outside lawyers had viewed them and the university used them for public business.

The appellate court agreed.

The appeal judges also rejected NCAA arguments that making the records public would violate constitutional rights to freedom of association and interstate commerce and a federal privacy law that keeps student education records confidential.

The privacy law didn't apply because students' names had been redacted and the documents are not education records, Padovano wrote.

The appellate court also turned aside an NCAA argument that making such documents public would "rip the heart out" of the organization's enforcement efforts by discouraging confidential witnesses from coming forward.

"In fact, the investigation in this very case refutes the claim," Padovano wrote. "The evidence came to the NCAA not from a confidential source who wanted to provide information against the university, but from an internal investigation by the university itself."