Western Kentucky University makes good on threat, sues student paper
KENTUCKY—Following in the footsteps of the University of Kentucky, Western Kentucky University on Monday sued its student newspaper, the College Heights Herald, over access to records detailing faculty sexual misconduct investigations.
Both the Herald and the Kentucky Kernel are listed as defendants in the suit, which seeks to overturn a January decision by Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear that Western Kentucky University violated the state Open Records Act in not releasing requested investigations to both publications.
Per Kentucky law, parties that appeal a decision by the Attorney General must file litigation against the organization that requested the records, rather than the Attorney General’s Office. Both Western Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky have said their complaints are not directly with their student newspapers, but rather with Beshear’s decision.
The Kernel initially requested “all investigative records from all Title IX investigations into sexual misconduct allegations levied against university employees in the past five years” from Western Kentucky as part of an investigation into how Kentucky universities handle transparency in staff misconduct cases.
Western Kentucky in its response to the Kernel said it had conducted 20 investigations since 2013. Six of the 20 investigations found a violation of university policy, and all six employees resigned prior to any university action, according to the lawsuit.
Despite revealing the number of investigations, however, the university declined to release any documents to the Kernel, citing two provisions in the state Open Records Act that exempt preliminary notes and documents in such investigations from public records laws. The Kernel appealed the denial to Beshear’s office in November.
Western Kentucky responded later in the month, again citing the open records exemptions, but added that producing the records would violate personal privacy and federal law in addition to stifling future reporting of sex and gender discrimination. On Nov. 29, Beshear’s office requested that Western Kentucky produce all documents for an “in camera” or private inspection. Western Kentucky refused, saying even sharing the records with the attorney general for inspection would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
The Herald filed a nearly identical records request in November concurrent to the Kernel’s request, to which Western Kentucky responded as it did to the Kernel’s request. Beshear’s office again requested the university produce the documents at issue for an “in camera” review, and the university again declined, citing FERPA.
In a Jan. 26 decision, Beshear’s office found that Western Kentucky University did not meet its burden of proof in denying both the Kernel and the Herald’s requests. He ordered the university to make immediate provisions to inspect and copy the requested records with personally identifiable information redacted.
The lawsuit asks for a reversal of the Attorney General’s decision saying Western Kentucky University violated the state Open Records Act. It also seeks a determination that the university, acted in good faith regarding its compliance with the requests; the practical effect of that finding would be to deprive the requesters of their ability to recoup attorney fees.
Herald editor-in-chief Lashana Harney said in a statement to the SPLC that the case is key in addressing transparency on college campuses.
“The College Heights Herald firmly believes in the importance of this case,” she said. “We will continue to push for transparency and accountability, as is our responsibility, in this matter, and in the work we do every day.”
In an emailed statement to the SPLC, Beshear said his office’s decision is important in terms of promoting both transparency and safety regarding sexual misconduct on college campuses in the state.
“Sexual assault on college campuses is one of the greatest threats facing our young Kentuckians. The choice of some universities to hide every aspect of how they investigate such crimes does not make our children safer,” he said. “A university can protect the identity of any students involved, while at the same time embracing the type of transparency where parents can truly evaluate how safe a campus actually is.”
In a parallel legal dispute with the Kernel, the University of Kentucky obtained a trial-court ruling in January accepting the categorization of employee-misconduct records as confidential under FERPA. That ruling, which is being appealed, is not binding on Western Kentucky, however.
SPLC staff writer Conner Mitchell can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318
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