UK continues legal appeal by suing student newspaper

UK President Eli Capilouto’s administration is suing the student newspaper as part of an appeal against an attorney general opinion ordering them to release records.
UK President Eli Capilouto’s administration is suing the student newspaper as part of an appeal against an attorney general opinion ordering them to release records. Herald-Leader

After weeks of national publicity, the University of Kentucky proceeded this week with a lawsuit against its independent student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel.

UK sued the Kentucky Kernel Wednesday in Fayette Circuit Court as part of its appeal against an attorney general’s opinion that found that the school had violated the Kentucky Open Records Act by withholding documents regarding a professor’s sexual harassment and assault case from the Kernel. In statements and the appeal itself, UK reiterated that its argument is with Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office, not the Kernel.

Nonetheless, the story of a school suing its own newspaper has gone viral, hitting the New York Daily News, USA Today, and BuzzFeed, a website that often caters to college students.

The case started earlier this summer when the Kernel published a story about James Harwood, who resigned from UK in February in the midst of a sexual harassment investigation against him. UK provided its settlement agreement with Harwood to the Kernel under the state’s open records law but refused to provide any investigative documents, saying they were preliminary and might violate the privacy of the complainants. The Kernel appealed to the attorney general’s office, which asked UK to show the documents to the office so it could determine whether they are exempt from public inspection. UK refused and decided to appeal the case.

Amid the controversy, the Kernel obtained many of the requested documents from another source and published them without using victims’ names. The newspaper found that Harwood was accused of sexual assault and that he also had been investigated for shoddy research practices. A spokesman for the victims said they were concerned that Harwood could move to another university because the settlement deal had been made without determining his guilt.

In its appeal, UK has said it must protect victims from media and other government agencies. It also claims that the documents are protected by attorney-client privilege.

“Our decision to appeal the opinion of the Office of the Attorney General is based on one thing — the obligation we have to victim survivors who have courageously come forward in the past under the assurance of confidentiality; and those who will follow,” UK spokesman Jay Blanton said. “We have a legal obligation to protect their privacy and confidentiality. We have a moral obligation to protect them as well.”

The open records law allows a government agency to redact all personal information, such as victims’ names, addresses or Social Security numbers.

“Students at the University of Kentucky and Kentucky taxpayers deserve to know the full story of the professor who was forced to leave his employment due to his inappropriate conduct toward students,” said Lexington attorney Tom Miller, who is representing the Kernel. “While the university attempts to cast its appeal from the attorney general’s opinion as one necessary to preserve the trust placed in it by its students, its continued refusal to abide by the Open Records Act does little to merit that trust.”

Miller also represents the Herald-Leader in an open meetings case against UK.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford