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University groups advocate for Ohio State against ESPN suit

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Several university groups came to the aid of Ohio State on Wednesday in its case against ESPN Inc., in an ongoing dispute over public records.

The Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, the Association of American Universities and the American Council on Education, all provided briefs to the supreme court in defense of OSU.

The files in question involve several aspects of the NCAA’s investigation of the university, which led to the forced-resignation of former head coach Jim Tressel.

In the suit, ESPN said OSU wrongfully cited the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act as a reason for withholding various documents.

The university groups argued that OSU did nothing wrong.

“Ohio State University has properly and necessarily protected confidential student information in compliance with the mandatory provisions of FERPA,” the statement said.

In addition to complying with FERPA regulations, both OSU and the university groups argued that OSU acted legally in their response to several open records requests.

OSU, in its response, wrote that “Ohio State University has not only met its Public Records Act obligations here, it has exceeded them.”

OSU said it has provided every record, as required by law, and even created new records to fulfill some of ESPN’s requests.

John Greiner, an attorney for ESPN, sent a letter to OSU on Sept. 16.

“With respect to the FERPA defense, we simply disagree, and I believe we will need to have the Supreme Court sort this out,” Greiner wrote.

ESPN stated in the lawsuit that producers at the sporting news network had made public records requests for all emails sent or received by President E. Gordon Gee, athletic director Gene Smith, compliance officer Doug Archie and Tressel, that included the keyword “Sarniak.”

Ted Sarniak is a businessman in Jeanette, Pa., closely associated with former OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

It was widely noted that Sarniak was a mentor to Pryor during both his time at OSU and in his recruitment process.

OSU’s media relations department cited FERPA as the reason for not initially supplying the records to ESPN.

On Aug. 12, a month after the lawsuit was filed, OSU supplied a heavily redacted file of emails and compliance forms to ESPN and other members of the media. Also included in the university’s response to ESPN was a letter containing an explanation of the release of the records, and the university’s interpretation of the misunderstanding.

“Consistent with our long working relationship and many telephone conversations, we viewed the process of responding to several of those requests as ongoing,” the letter stated. “The university was unaware that ESPN thought otherwise.”

The university said through its letter that the withholding of records was not a malicious effort to block the records from ESPN, but a miscommunication of the clarity of the public record requests.

In July, Jim Lynch, spokesman for the university, told The Lantern that normally they do not comment on pending litigation, but due to the circumstances they released a statement.

“The university believes that it has adhered to all applicable state and federal laws,” Lynch said in the email.

“The university has been inundated with public records requests stemming from its ongoing NCAA investigation and the university. These include voluminous requests from ESPN, which in turn has received a voluminous amount of information.”

In an email to The Lantern in July, Lynch said the department actively works with media organizations to help fulfill requests.

“While the university often receives media requests that are overly broad, given Ohio’s public record laws, we generally try to work with reporters to help them find the information they are seeking,” Lynch said in the July email. “Working within the boundaries of the applicable laws.”

An attorney for ESPN has declined comment on several occasions saying “ESPN does not comment on pending litigation.”

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