Student-run newspapers can be great experiences, giving students a taste of what they’ll face if they continue with a journalism career. They learn to chase important stories and dig for the facts. They learn to take on powerful institutions and hold officials accountable.
Unfortunately, the student journalists who run the Kentucky Kernel, the independent student newspaper at the University of Kentucky, have been getting a more than real-life lesson — one they really need not face.
The Kernel has been investigating the circumstances surrounding the resignation of a professor. Its editor filed an open records request for the results of UK’s investigation into sexual assault and harassment claims against the professor. UK refused to turn over the records.
Under Kentucky’s Open Records Law, the Kernel appealed the university’s decision to the Attorney General’s office, which ruled that UK must turn over the records but could remove the names and identifying information of victims and witnesses.
UK President Eli Capilouto then sent an email to the entire campus saying the university would not release the information because of “the need to protect the privacy and dignity of individual members of our community.” He said UK would take the case to Circuit Court, the next level of appeal under Kentucky law.
The Kernel later received a copy of the investigative report from a confidential source — who did redact the names and identifying information — and reported on its findings, which it said “spanned seven months and covered about three years of allegations made against the professor.” A spokesman for two of the victims who filed complaints also told the Kernel that they favored making the report public – with names removed.
Still, UK says it plans to proceed with its lawsuit appealing the Attorney General’s opinion because it believes the opinion was erroneous. It also is appealing an AG opinion in favor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, which sought minutes from a UK Board of Trustees dinner where business was conducted.
As the Herald-Leader reported, UK has lost at least five recent decisions on open records or open meetings laws and has appealed at least two of them.
Kentucky has some of the country’s better laws on open records and meetings, yet some institutions still insist on fighting every step of the way to protect their reputations and operations from public scrutiny. This lesson about institutional intransigence is one these UK student journalists will have for a long time.