UK journalism faculty asks Capilouto to apologize, drop suit against student newspaper

The University of Kentucky campus.
The University of Kentucky campus.

Fifteen University of Kentucky journalism faculty members have asked President Eli Capilouto to drop a lawsuit against the student newspaper and apologize to its editor.

In a letter delivered to Capilouto on Thursday afternoon, the faculty members expressed strong objections to Capilouto’s remarks about Marjorie Kirk’s stories in the Kentucky Kernel about an investigation into alleged sexual harassment and assault against students committed by a professor.

“When you told the Board of Trustees that the Kernel, in its story about the James Harwood sexual assault case, published ‘salacious details to attract readers,’ you impugned the reputation of the newspaper and its editor, Majorie Kirk, and cast aspersions on journalism faculty who have taught, and are teaching Kernel staff,” the letter said. “An apology is called for.”

Kirk wrote about UK’s settlement with Harwood, who denied guilt in the matter and was allowed to resign without any mention of the case on his record. After UK denied Kirk access to investigative documents, she appealed to Attorney General Andy Beshear, who asked to see the documents “in camera” to see whether they could be released. UK refused. The attorney general’s office found UK in violation of the state open-records law. UK decided to appeal that decision, which meant the university had to sue the Kernel in Fayette Circuit Court.

Last Friday at a board of trustees meeting in Bowling Green, Capilouto read from a lengthy statement in which he disparaged the motives of the Kernel and other media, and said that his only interest was to protect the identity of the victims who had the courage to report their assault.

Three trustees said they disagreed with UK’s approach, but no vote was taken because board chairman Britt Brockman told one of the trustees that such an action might compel Capilouto to resign.

The Kernel later obtained the investigative documents, but as with most media, the newspaper has never named the victims in the case.

In the past few years, UK has refused to release information on a number of topics; the university currently has at least three other open-records or open-meetings cases in court.

The faculty expressed concern about these patterns, which they said provoke concern over First Amendment issues of “accountability and transparency” and “your contravention of a state law that makes the attorney general the initial arbiter of disputes under the Open Records Act and the Open Meetings Act. By refusing to submit documents for confidential review, you are substituting your judgment for that of the attorney general, who is a judicial officer bound by the rules of confidentiality.”

Among the signees was Michael Farrell, director of UK’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center; Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism; and Buck Ryan, director of the Citizen Kentucky Project in the First Amendment Center.

Kirk said she was “incredibly appreciative” of the letter.

“I agree with it wholeheartedly,” she said. “The president didn’t name me, but I’m glad the faculty knew I felt I was being attacked. I’m glad they came to my defense and see this lawsuit for what it is.”

Spokesman Jay Blanton said late Thursday that UK respects and appreciates the journalism faculty’s concerns.

“But this disagreement rests where it should — in a court of law. We are all — the Kernel, the university, the office of the attorney general and our faculty — grappling with how best to protect all of our students who are part of this community. But the most important question here is how to protect victim survivors.”

On Thursday, the Kernel printed a rare front-page editorial that excoriated the UK administration for its recent actions.

“After an examination of the facts, it is hard to believe UK is out to protect anybody but itself,” the editorial reads. “The stark contrast between what UK released and what actually happened shows that UK cannot be trusted to be transparent about how it deals with sexual assault on campus.”

The Bluegrass Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists also issued a strong statement against Capilouto’s actions.

“The school should immediately drop its lawsuit, comply with the attorney general’s order and allow the state’s 40-year-old open records law to work as it has for decades,” the statement said. “Capilouto suggests only he can protect the privacy of students who are victims of predators, and that it can only be done by withholding records. That’s a false claim. The president is protecting only the administration and its policies.”

The statement also referred to an alleged threat that Capilouto would resign if the board of trustees voted on the matter.

“Maybe resigning is not such a bad idea,” the statement said. “A leader of a public university who has such disdain for transparency, the law and students who demand answers may find pastures greener at a private institution, where secrets are more easily kept, where bad acts are more easily swept under the rug, and where there is more control over student publications.”

Capilouto has denied ever saying that he might resign if the board voted to halt the university’s lawsuit against the Kernel.

The controversy, which has attracted national attention from media including Buzzfeed and USA Today, is sure to continue. At a court hearing Friday, Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Clark allowed the attorney general to intervene in the case before it moves forward.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford