Kentucky State University must turn over documents of sexual misconduct cases to Attorney General Andy Beshear for a confidential review, a Franklin Circuit Court Judge has ruled.
The ruling stems from a request for records last year by the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper, which sought documents from every public university in the state about sexual misconduct by employees against students. All but three complied: Kentucky State, the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University. The Kernel, and in some cases, WKU’s College Heights Herald student newspaper, appealed those refusals, setting off a complicated series of court cases around the state.
In the KSU case, Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled that Kentucky State had erred by not allowing the Attorney General to examine the documents in secret, known as an “in camera” review. That provision would have allowed Beshear’s office, which writes legally-binding opinions in open records disputes, to determine if KSU was correct in saying that giving the documents to the Kernel would violate federal student confidentiality laws.
“The attorney general is not acting as another public entity seeking to reveal the substantiating records to public purview,” the order reads. “Rather, the attorney general’s statutorily authorized in camera review of substantiating documents merely seeks to better determine if the university erred in denying the Kentucky Kernel’s request for documents.”
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Kentucky State University officials did not immediately comment on a possible appeal of Wingate’s decision.
Beshear called the ruling a “win for transparency and accountability.”
“The statutory power of the attorney general to confidentially review public documents is necessary to avoid turning Kentucky’s Open Records Act into a ‘trust me’ law,” he said in a statement. “Without the review, there can be no government transparency, as a bad actor can easily cheat the system. In the context of a university, that would allow an institution to hide serious issues related to sexual assault, to ignore victims, and to tell parents and families that a given campus may be safer than it is.”
The KSU case is one of four related cases moving through Kentucky’s judicial system.
In January, Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Clark ruled for UK, saying that providing documents to the Kernel about a professor accused of sexually harassing students might allow the victims to be publicly identified, thus violating a federal privacy law that protects students. The Kernel appealed that decision, which is pending.
In a separate but related case, another Fayette Circuit Court judge ruled in August that Beshear’s right to examine UK’s documents did not trump federal law. That case is also pending in the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
A judge has not yet ruled in another related lawsuit WKU filed against the College Heights Herald and the Kernel in order to keep its sexual misconduct records secret.