“Sometimes,” Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Mary Noble wrote in deciding a case involving anonymous criticism of a public official, “negative things just need to be said.”
Unfortunately, public officials often squelch dissent, claiming that progress can only or best be achieved by keeping controversy under wraps.
Consider some recent examples:
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▪ Two weeks ago, University of Kentucky board of trustees chair Britt Brockman warned a member of that board against raising the issue of whether UK should continue with a lawsuit against the student newspaper, saying UK President Eli Capilouto might resign if the matter was called for a vote. “I felt the president ...would potentially step aside rather than have a divided board.”
▪ The lawsuit itself stems from UK’s efforts to keep under wraps the negative things in a story published by the independent student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, of a professor accused of sexually assaulting students. The professor was allowed to resign, receiving several months of pay on his way out.
▪ In June, Gov. Matt Bevin justified his legally questionable dissolution of the University of Louisville board of trustees, saying “the board as it exists right now is not particularly functional. It’s dysfunction has precluded it” from effectively leading the university.
That diagnosis seemed to arise out of the activism of some board members who had called for a vote of no confidence in the scandal-ridden administration of then-U of L President James Ramsey. They challenged tuition increases and questioned huge payments, some neither approved by nor presented to trustees, to Ramsey and his inner circle from the University of Louisville Foundation.
People in power often object to public conflict because it threatens their power. The Founders understood this and so enshrined freedom of speech in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
There are other reasons, of course, for this drive to smooth things over. Conflict makes people uncomfortable. And certainly little is gained when it degenerates into shouting matches that are more about personality than policy.
But that’s the price a free society must pay to assure that things that need to be said do get said.
It’s disturbing that the head of UK’s trustees can’t tolerate — or thinks the president can’t tolerate — a lively, frank discussion about Capilouto’s decision to sue the student newspaper. After all, the president works for the board, not the other way around.
Capilouto continues to cast his objection to releasing the results of the university’s investigation of James Harwood as grounded in a desire to protect his victims, even though their names have not been published by any news organization. But without the Kernel’s reporting, Harwood could have moved on to another job at another university with more potential victims. Who does that protect?
On the U of L board, the dissident members were agitating to lead the university instead of acting as a rubber stamp for Ramsey. Important steps toward reforming the administration and cleaning up the quagmire at the foundation have only come about since a court blocked Bevin’s changes, reinstating the “dysfunctional” board.