Ky. attorney general orders university to release correspondence records

KENTUCKY -- Northern Kentucky University's student newspaper, The Northerner, is in a 30-day waiting period to find out whether the school will respond to an open records request, as ordered by the Kentucky Attorney General, or appeal to the Campbell County Circuit Court.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway ordered the university to release documents of correspondence between two recently fired faculty members and other faculty and staff members, said Mark Payne, The Northerner's print editor-in-chief. Blanche Pringle-Smith was let go on Feb. 3, and Michael Griffin on Feb. 17, according to the The Northerner website. Both were former coordinators for the Office of African American Student Affairs.

Although they cannot be obtained through the university, Payne said, Pringle-Smith gave the newspaper a copy of forms she received upon her dismissal, called "NKU correctional forms," which are vague in their description of why she was fired. The Northerner's request for the e-mail correspondence leading up to the firing of Pringle-Smith and Griffin was also denied, because it would have been "too burdensome," Payne said. However, the Attorney General determined this was not a legitimate reason to deny the records, he said.

"The Attorney General said that the unwanted burden wasn't a legitimate reason to deny us those records," Payne said.

Jay Manire, associate counsel for the Office of Legal Affairs, wrote to the Northerner, "we intend to use the next 30 days to assess whether it would be more advantageous for the university to litigate the matter in Campbell (County) Circuit Court or attempt to go through the voluminous records to provide you only the non-exempt correspondence," according to an article on the newspaper's website. Manire declined to comment for this article.

The university would have to file an appeal to the Campbell County Circuit Court if within 30 days it decides that the burden is too great to produce the information, said Ashley Pack, general counsel for the Kentucky Press Association.

"When they say 'burdensome' it will be: How many thousands of documents, how many man hours, how expensive will it be? It's a pretty high burden," she said.

If, however, within 30 days the university does not file an appeal, they must comply with the Attorney General's initial opinion and disclose the requested information.

"They have 30 days, and that's a pretty limited time period, in order to appeal the Attorney General's decision. If they don't, the Attorney General's decision has the 'force and effect of the law'... So if they don't appeal it, they have to give the records up," Pack said.

The communications director for the Attorney General, Allison Gardner Martin, said in a voicemail message that the office could not comment on the contents of any specific opinions, but also said that the opinions do carry the "force of law."

"They are advisory opinions in nature. They do carry the force of law. We cannot force the university to [disclose] the records, but if they do not and they are taken to court and the court finds that they must produce the records, the court can make the university cover the attorneys' costs for the parties," Martin said.

The Northerner had also sought to obtain copies of the grievances submitted to the university by Pringle-Smith and Griffin after their respective terminations. The university denied the request, saying that the grievances were part of an ongoing investigation, a decision that was upheld by the Attorney General, Payne said. When the university closes the files, he added, the newspaper would request them again.

The Northerner reporter who filed the requests, Jesse Call, said he spoke with Griffin and Pringle-Smith today about the situation. He confirmed that the grievances are still open, meaning the paper still cannot request that information, and said that he was not surprised with the responses he had gotten from the university. "This isn't limited to the situation," he said. "[Northern Kentucky University] is regularly trying to make records unavailable."

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