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Penn State did not prove its legal standing to have public court filing sealed, experts say

A tree, covered in pink blossoms, is seen in front of the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte.
Kristine Allen
/
WPSU
The Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte.

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State did not prove it had legal standing to request the sealing of a case related to alleged sexual extortion against two of the university’s student athletes, legal experts told Spotlight PA. The school’s move was a highly unusual action that limited public access to judicial documents.

Spotlight PA was a part of an effort to make public details of the case, which had been sealed by a Centre County Court of Common Pleas judge in June. Case files were unsealed on July 15 with identifiable information about the victims redacted.

A state criminal investigation began in the fall of 2021 when two Penn State student athletes reported to Penn State University Police that they were extorted online by an unknown person identified as “Li.” Li convinced at least one of the athletes to share sexually explicit photos and videos and later threatened the victim with those materials, according to the unsealed court documents.

In June, the Centre County District Attorney’s Office closed that investigation after the victims decided against pursuing legal action. Upon learning that case files would become public, Penn State filed an emergency ex parte preliminary injunction to have the entire case sealed.

“It is believed … that the privacy interests of these crime victims will be irreparably and irreversibly damaged if the unsealing of these records occurs,” the university wrote in a petition filed on June 23. Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest granted the request.

The next day, the university asked that its emergency request also be placed under seal. Ruest granted this request too.

“That tells me that the court viewed whatever Penn State said as significant enough to justify the ex parte motions, the complete seal, and doing so in such a short time frame,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which Spotlight PA is a member.

Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna challenged Penn State’s position in a July 11 motion to dissolve the seal. His personal counsel, Mary Lou Maierhofer, said the university lacked standing to represent the students but still “took it upon themselves to act.”

The victims would have had the right to take action in this case, Maierhofer said, but not Penn State.

If the victims asked Penn State to get involved, the university could have plausible standing to act in loco parentis — meaning to perform somewhat like a parent, said David Rudovsky, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

When asked by Spotlight PA whether the victims had requested Penn State to petition on their behalf for the case to be sealed, the university did not answer the question.

The university also would not explain how it determines when to initiate legal intervention on behalf of students.

Penn State’s assertion that it can take legal action because the institution represents the interests of students is a vague and broad statement, Rudovsky said. “If they didn’t ask for it, what’s [the university’s] interest to protecting privacy when the students may not have an interest in their own privacy?”

“It’s a very unusual kind of case,” he added.

Pennsylvania legal statutes limit what identifiable information regarding victims can appear on court documents. Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, financial account numbers, minors’ names, and dates of birth, as well as other information on abuse victims, are required to be confidential.

The general rule, Melewsky said, is to “protect certain information on a limited basis” and maintain public access to the courts.

“When you’re going to seal a piece of otherwise public information like the name of a victim, for example, you have to explain to the court what good cause you’re showing,” Melewsky said. “And if you can show good cause, even then you have to use the least restrictive means available.”

Good cause is a legal term meaning a sufficient reason for a judge to act or rule. Potential embarrassment to a victim is generally not accepted as good cause, she added. Penn State’s reasoning for having this case sealed in its entirety doesn’t rise to the level of what the Pennsylvania Constitution requires, Melewsky argued.

“It’s a very high standard for very good reason,” Melewsky said. “So the fact that we have not just pieces of information but an entire case file sealed is an extraordinary thing to both pursue and for the court to grant.”

Lisa Powers, Penn State’s senior director of university public relations, previously told Spotlight PA in an email that “the University’s concern was focused on potential student victims and their right to privacy in this case, and the possible irreparable and irreversible damage that the immediate unsealing of the records could impose. There was never any intent to permanently seal the warrants, only to redact the names of victims.”

Spotlight PA asked Penn State twice why the university did not initially ask the court to redact the identifying information, instead of requesting the entire case remain sealed.

Penn State would not provide an answer.

Penn State originally argued in its court filings that the victims’ privacy interest “vastly outweighs” other concerns.

Cantorna disagreed in his motion and said that the sensitive nature of this case “does not trump the need for public access to the public judicial records.”

There is some “ambiguity” in the matter, Maierhofer said. Although public records include victim names and the media has access to them, as a matter of policy news outlets generally do not name victims, especially for sensitive cases.

In this instance, the two student victims were not named directly in court filings, but there was “enough information” to potentially identify them, Maierhofer said. She said the release of the records with some information redacted balanced the victims’ privacy and the public’s right to open courts.

Both points of contention — whether Penn State had standing to act in this case and whether the victims’ privacy interest outweighed the need for public access of court documents — were never adjudicated in court, because the redacted records were released before a hearing scheduled for July 26 could take place.

Melewsky said the hearing would have given the public an opportunity to weigh in and to debate the justification of a complete seal in an open court.

Penn State investigative reporter Wyatt Massey contributed to this story.

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