Two Thumbs UP: Uncoding the redactions

Editors of the Eastern Progress, student newspaper for Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., 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.

Former police reporter Ben Kleppinger, a 22-year-old senior, noticed that the summary crime reports provided by the campus police department contained numerous redactions that seemed to be growing more and more excessive as time went on. Early in 2008, Kleppinger observed that the department was redacting not just highly personal information such as Social Security numbers, but curse words, portions of conversations and other information, often without explanation.

“They were censoring stuff that was just absurd,” Kleppinger said.

The campus police department had been voluntarily supplying the Progress with free police reports, and the university took the position that it could freely redact these summary reports. A full report made via an open records request, however, could be redacted only if all redacted information fit the narrow definition of Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 61.878(1)(a). The statute allows a state employee to withhold 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.”

Kleppinger and his then-editor, Marty Finley, decided to file a Freedom of Information request for the full reports from several weeks in March 2008 to compare with the free voluntary police reports and determine exactly what had been removed. When the requested documents arrived, editors found the university had not included certain crime reports in the weekly free reports and the full reports still had addresses, ages and phone numbers redacted. Kleppinger decided to appeal the case to the Kentucky attorney general’s office. He called the Kentucky Press Association to make sure he had a case, and then wrote up and submitted the appeal himself.

For several months, Kleppinger and the Progress continued to file open records requests for police reports and put pressure on the university. The attorney general’s office sided with Kleppinger. The decision, issued July 24, said that Eastern Kentucky University had overstepped the law by removing addresses from the reports.

“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 decision.

Kleppinger and the Progress staff were thrilled by the outcome.

“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 faculty adviser Reggie Beehner praised Kleppinger for filing the initial requests and appeal, noting that he did this 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.

Following the attorney general’s ruling, the university made it clear that they accepted the decision and were going to work with the paper to deliver reports.

“In light of the recent AG’s opinion, the University is specifically reviewing how it provides police reports to The Eastern Progress,” Associate Vice President of Public Relations Marc Whitt stated in an e-mail.

Kleppinger returned to the Progress as editor in chief for the new school year. Throughout the fall semester, he and the Progress staff worked with the Eastern Kentucky general counsel and the police department to obtain full police reports without having to file open records requests. Now, the department issues full reports to the Progress every week, and in cases where the reports must be redacted due to an ongoing investigation, the department provides a summary report of the case.

Kleppinger is glad to be finally working with the university to keep the campus informed. When considering what he would have done differently, he wished he had learned more about open records law before the case began because some of the information he requested was actually legal for the university to withhold.

“I would probably research what the law specifically allows the university to redact before I complain to the university about things they actually were allowed to redact,” he said.

Kleppinger also noted that the case took up a lot of effort and time, and that anyone in a similar situation should expect to fight hard to achieve any change. However, he had no regrets about the appeal.

“I think we did exactly what we needed to do,” he said. “We saw a problem, developed a plan to fix the problem and got the university to work together with us on that.”

reports, Winter 2008-09