UK continuing lawsuit against student newspaper after investigation details published

UK President Eli Capilouto has argued that UK must keep information secret in certain cases.
UK President Eli Capilouto has argued that UK must keep information secret in certain cases. Charles Bertram | Staff

The University of Kentucky will continue its legal case against the university’s independent student newspaper, officials said, even though the Kentucky Kernel already has obtained and published details of the disputed documents in the open records case.

At issue are documents regarding an associate professor who resigned from UK in February in the midst of a sexual harassment investigation against him. According to the resignation agreement, James Harwood, an associate entomology professor, resigned without stated cause and will continue to receive pay and benefits through August 31.

Using the Kentucky Open Records Act, the Kernel requested the agreement and the investigative documents, said Kernel Editor-in-Chief Marjorie Kirk. UK provided the agreement, but declined to give the newspaper documents that detailed the investigation by UK’s Office of Institution Equity and Equal Opportunity.

UK contends the investigation documents remain preliminary because they were not incorporated into the resignation agreement with Harwood and that releasing the file might violate the privacy of the complainants.

The Kernel appealed the denial to Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office, which said UK had violated the open records law by denying their office the chance to see if the documents should be released. The decision said UK should release the documents with any identifying information redacted.

Instead, UK chose to appeal the attorney general’s decision, which means suing the Kernel in Fayette Circuit Court. The same day, UK announced it would also sue the Lexington Herald-Leader over an open meetings violation determined by the attorney general. UK President Eli Capilouto sent out a campus-wide email describing the tension between transparency and privacy.

“In a handful of specific cases, we are faced with the decision of whether transparency is more important than the need to protect the privacy and dignity of individual members of our community,” he wrote. “It is not.”

However, a few days later, the Kernel reported that confidential sources had given them the documents. They showed there were numerous complainants who accused Harwood of sexual harassment and assault. An unnamed spokesman for the victims told the Kernel that they were unhappy that Harwood could get a job at another university because the settlement deal had been made without determining his guilt.

The Kernel did not identify any alleged victims of sexual harassment or assault in the case.

Nonetheless, UK officials say they will move forward against the newspaper.

“The university will continue its appeal because this case has enormous implications for how we investigate and remedy sexual assault on campus,” said spokesman Jay Blanton. “When victim-survivors courageously come forward to report violence — in this case and in those that may follow — they do so under the assurance of confidentiality as mandated by federal law and supported strongly by university policy. Our university cannot — and should not — decide when it is appropriate to violate a victim-survivor’s privacy — and a victim-survivor’s trust — by providing information to the Office of the Attorney General, the Kernel, or any other entity. According to the Kentucky Supreme Court, only a judge can request review of privileged documents and only then under extraordinary circumstances. That is why it is essential that this dispute be settled in a court of law.”

Student journalists at the Kernel said they will keep fighting to make important information public without harming victims.

“Our role at the newspaper is to keep matters of the university that pertain to students transparent,” said Kirk. “If we come into possession of certain information, we want to make sure students know what’s going on, even if the university wishes to keep it closed.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

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