State press association awards Herald grant for ongoing lawsuit

The College Heights Herald has received a $10,000 grant to help cover ongoing legal expenses in WKU’s lawsuit against the newspaper.

The Kentucky Press Association Legal Defense Fund agreed to allocate $10,000 immediately to help cover the Herald’s legal expenses. The defense fund also agreed to support the Herald with the lawsuit in the future, should additional funds be needed, according to Tom Caudill, the chairman of the KPA Legal Defense Fund.

For disclosure purposes, Caudill also serves as a member on the Student Publications Advisory Board, and is a former Herald editor.

Caudill said the Herald was the only college newspaper to apply for funding and the committee voted unanimously to grant the money.

“The committee felt strongly about this case and the fundamental values represented by the Herald,” Caudill said.

When contacted for comment, Bob Skipper, director of media relations, said the university cannot comment on pending litigation.

In January 2017, Attorney General Andy Beshear ruled WKU violated the Kentucky Open Records Act by denying requests from the College Heights Herald and the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper at the University of Kentucky.

The information requested was “all investigative records for all Title IX investigations into sexual misconduct allegations levied against university employees in the past five years.”

WKU denied both requests, citing the Kentucky Revised Statutes exceptions to the Open Records Act which allow a public agency to withhold certain records. Since 2013, WKU has conducted 20 Title IX investigations over the past five years (the request for this information was made in late 2016). Nine of which were faculty and 11 staff members. Six of the 20 investigations resulted in a finding of violation of WKU’s sexual misconduct policy. 

WKU, per university policy, defines sexual misconduct/assault as “actual or attempted sexual contact with another person without that person’s consent.” This includes, but isn’t limited to intentional and unwelcome touching, sexual contact when the victim isn’t able to consent and rape.

Both request denials were appealed in November 2016. WKU maintained each of the six employees in question resigned or retired from their respective positions prior to any final action by WKU.

WKU argued releasing the records would violate the personal privacy of students involved. The attorney general’s office requested copies of the records involved from WKU, which WKU denied.

The attorney general then requested redacted copies of the records withheld, “but only to protect the names and personal identifiers of students.”

WKU responded that “merely redacting student names and personal identifiers of students would not be sufficient to protect the identity of student reporting parties or witnesses who should be afforded privacy under both federal and state law.”

WKU sued the College Heights Herald in late February to appeal the ruling from the Kentucky attorney general. The Kernel was also named as a defendant in the case.

“It’s absurd the universities are suing their student papers to keep this information from the public,” Caudill said.

Caudill said by refusing to release the information, WKU is protecting sexual predators and the university administration “is on the wrong side of history.”

A status conference was held in early November 2017. Attorneys for the Herald and WKU agreed to get together to come up with a schedule for a period of discovery to move the case forward.

Warren County Circuit Court Judge Steve Wilson said, at the conference, he would allow the case to move into a period of limited discovery, and the lawyers will confer with one another to come up with a schedule to move the case forward.

The Herald has also received a $5,000 grant in 2017 by the Society of Professional Journalists Legal Defense Fund, and approximately $7,000 donated by Herald and Talisman alumni through the College Heights Herald Fund established by the national Student Press Law Center.

Herald editor-in-chief Andrew Henderson can be reached at 270-745-5044 and [email protected].