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Thursday, February 2, 2023
MFIA Challenges West Point and Its Sports Association for Flouting Transparency Laws
This week, the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) filed suit against the United States Military Academy at West Point and the nonprofit entity that runs its athletics programs, seeking a court order to disclose records about lucrative contracts and licensing agreements. By failing to release the records after repeated requests from a sports writer, West Point and the affiliated entity are in violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the lawsuit alleges.
According to the lawsuit, MFIA’s client, sports journalist Daniel Libit, was stymied from receiving basic information about the programs when the military institution and its association refused to search for and provide records in response to his FOIA requests.
West Point established the Army West Point Athletic Association (AWPAA) in 2015 as a way to stay competitive in the $14 billion college sports industry. West Point and other military service academies, which are subject to federal financial restrictions, were being outspent by other Division I heavyweights. Spinning off a federally-chartered nonprofit enabled West Point’s sports programs to more competitively take in revenue, lure athletes, and pay coaches. By 2018, West Point had migrated personnel management, contracts, sponsorships and oversight of athletics facilities to AWPAA.
In 2022, in reporting for the online news service Sportico, Libit filed three FOIA requests with West Point and AWPAA. Libit sought important financial information about potentially lucrative agreements, including coaches’ employment contracts, multimedia and apparel agreements and the contract between the service academy and its deputized athletic association.
Neither organization provided any records, even after Libit filed appeals, according to the lawsuit. West Point claimed the records were AWPAA’s and directed Libit to them, while AWPAA claimed that as a nonprofit it was a “non-federal entity” not subject to FOIA.
MFIA’s complaint disputes both claims, pointing out that West Point has legal and logistical control over AWPAA and its records, which obligates it to produce the records Libit requested. AWPAA is a government-controlled corporation that exists exclusively to serve West Point. What’s more, in tax filings as well as its own bylaws, the organization has indicated that it is a government agency. As such, the lawsuit argues, the organization is subject to FOIA, and in failing to release the documents Libit requested, it violated the statute.
“Federal agencies shouldn’t be able to hide parts of their activities from public scrutiny by apportioning them out to non-profit entities the agencies control,” said Kelsey Eberly, Clinical Lecturer and Abrams Fellow at MFIA. “Today it’s West Point hiding its athletics contracts, but tomorrow it could be almost any federal agency with business it would rather conduct in the dark.”
The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) at Yale Law School is a law student clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services, pursuing impact litigation and developing policy initiatives.