NEWS RELEASE: National award recognizes gutsy Kentucky college journalists whose quest for open records sparked university retaliation
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: OCT 26, 2017
Contact: Diana Mitsu Klos, director of engagement (202) 728-7267/ firstname.lastname@example.org
For remaining steadfast after being sued by a university in a battle over open records related to a sexual harassment investigation, the Kentucky Kernel is the recipient of the Student Press Law Center’s 2017 College Press Freedom Award.
“The University of Kentucky appears to be incapable of shame as it targets a student news organization that acted in the public interest by shedding light on campus sexual harassment allegations. The work of these journalists should be celebrated - not vilified,” said Hadar Harris, SPLC executive director.
Starting in 2016, , based in Lexington, Ky., has filed extensive coverage about multiple student complaints of sexual harassment lodged against a now former associate professor of entomology. The Kernel filed multiple Freedom of Information requests to obtain details of the alleged harassment and settlement with faculty member James Harwood, who left the university.
“We are on solid Constitutional and ideological ground, while feeling a duty to inform our community," said 2017-18 Kernel Editor-in-Chief Paidin Dermody. "The University's self-imposed gag order does not trump First Amendment freedoms.”
The university sued the Kernel, in an unorthodox “reverse-FOIA” lawsuit. University lawyers convinced a lower-court judge that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act applied to the requested “education records” -- even with student identities removed -- because they pertain to student complainants.
The SPLC leapt to the defense of the student journalists and spearheaded a coalition of seven other press-rights organizations to defend the Kernel.
“The Kernel is incredibly appreciative of the outreach from the journalism and press freedom community in response to our pursuit of these records. It evinces a coalition for a safer environment on our college campuses and a spirit of trust in the public. When we shed more light on the issue of sexual harassment and assault at universities, we will be able to combat the factors and actors who enable it,” said 2016-17 Kernel Editor-in-Chief Marjorie Kirk. She is currently attending law school at the University of California at Davis.
The University sued to challenge a ruling by state Attorney General Andy Beshear that the records must be produced to the newspaper because the University failed to prove that they are “education records” covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal student privacy law.
Beshear ordered that all investigation documents be released, with the names of witnesses redacted. The university continues to fight against release of the information related to the sexual harassment complaints.
“Students and faculty all over campus, and not just in the School of Journalism and Media, have taken note of the work we have done here at the Kernel to expose and hold the University accountable for its actions and inactions," Dermody said. "We have had an overwhelming amount of campus support, as well as national support, regarding our plight, and I think we will continue to have this backing as final court decisions arise. Students have arranged marches and protests on campus to take a stand against the University and its handling of sexual assault cases, and I think the Kernel has really helped urge them to speak on this topic that is often ignored and buried to save face.”
Founded in 1908 and independent since 1972, Kentucky Kernel is the non-profit, student-run newspaper for the University of Kentucky.
The Kernel will be recognized during an awards ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 28 at the National College Media Convention in Dallas, which will be attended by nearly 1,500 college journalism students and advisers.
Paidin said of the award, “I think the significance is twofold. First, in retrospect, it is a well deserved accolade for last year's staff. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is a call for us, as heirs to their excellence, to continue in the same vein. An award of this type creates a duty of sorts."
The award is jointly sponsored by the Student Press Law Center, the Associated Collegiate Press and Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication.
The Manship School funds the $2,000 prize in memory of a group of courageous LSU editors (“the Reveille Seven”) who were expelled in 1934 for publishing criticism of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, and later cleared of wrongdoing and vindicated.
The Student Press Law Center (splc.org, @splc) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 1974 to provide legal support for those working in student journalism nationwide. The SPLC advocates for openness and accountability in educational institutions through rigorous enforcement of state and federal disclosure laws.
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