Kentucky attorney general sides with Eastern Kentucky student newspaper in request to open campus police records

KENTUCKY -- Editors of the Eastern Progress, student newspaper for Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, scored a victory for open records in an appeal to the Kentucky attorney general that challenged the university's redaction of information from campus police reports.

The Kentucky attorney general agreed with the Progress' argument that the university had overstepped the law in redacting -- or removing -- addresses and other personal information from campus police department reports obtained by the Progress through a Freedom of Information Act request.

For several years, student police writers had been growing frustrated with extensive redactions in the free reports the campus police department provided. Progress editor and former police reporter Ben Kleppinger noted that some redactions -- such as the removal of addresses -- did not seem to comply with the Kentucky statute cited by the university.

This statute, Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 61.878(1)(a), allows a state employee to withhold disclosure of otherwise-public information as long as it is "of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

The campus police department had been voluntarily supplying the Progress with free police reports on a weekly basis; the university took the position that it could freely redact these summary reports. A full report made via an FOIA request could be redacted only if all redacted information was of the "personal nature" described by KRS 61.878.

"At the beginning of 2008, we noticed [the redactions] were getting especially bad," Kleppinger said. "They were censoring stuff that was just absurd."

He and his then-editor, Marty Finley, decided to file an FOI request for the full reports. When the requested reports arrived with many of the redactions still in place, Kleppinger appealed to the attorney general's office, which agreed that Eastern Kentucky had overstepped the law by removing addresses from the reports. The attorney general cited a 2004 decision that allowed the redaction only of addresses relating to sex offenses.

"We are aware of no prohibition on disclosure of campus addresses appearing in an incident report, or according them greater protection, with the exception of the addresses, whether campus or home, of victims of sexual offenses," Attorney General Jack Conway stated in the July 24 decision.

Kleppinger and the Progress staff are thrilled by the outcome of the appeal.

"Basically, it verified everything we claimed when we made our appeal," Kleppinger said. "It told the university that they can't censor just whatever they want to in the police reports based on the KRS statute they were citing."

Progress adviser Reggie Beehner praised Kleppinger for filing the initial requests and appeal largely on his own.

"I'm just proud of Ben, that he saw what he thought was unjustified action and took it upon himself to see it through to the end," Beehner said.

Kleppinger acknowledges that the Progress continues to face challenges. The police department can still redact information from the free reports, and FOIA requests can take several days to be completed. He hopes the university will put pressure on the police department to be more open with information in the first place.

A representative for Eastern Kentucky confirmed that the university has accepted the attorney general's opinion and is working to balance personal privacy with the requirements of open records.

"Eastern Kentucky University strives to provide information requested through the Kentucky Open Records Act in accordance with the statutes and that are consistent with Attorney General opinions," Associate Vice President of Public Relations Marc Whitt stated in an e-mail. "In light of the recent AG's opinion, the University is specifically reviewing how it provides police reports to The Eastern Progress."

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