Ransdell makes strides to muddy records fight

David Hormell

Gary Ransdell and the College Heights Herald share an odd relationship.

Ransdell championed student publications for much of his time as president; he was the first university president to sign the Society for Professional Journalist’s statement student media’s need for first amendment protection.

However, Ransdell has recently backpedaled on his support for the paper and defended WKU’s decision to sue the Herald over an open records request.

If you haven’t been keeping up, the Herald made a records request regarding sexual misconduct charges amongst WKU’s faculty and staff last November. The Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper, made a similar request earlier.

In Kentucky, the Kentucky Open Records Act allows for such requests to be made. This keeps those in power accountable and discourages corruption. The truth is out there, and open records laws empowers quite literally anyone to find it.

In a different records battle, UK ended up suing the Kernel with the Kernel losing the fight, but with plans to appeal.

UK President Eli Capilouto released a statement entitled “The Tension of Competing Values,” in which he defended the legal position of the university in UK’s lawsuit, writing: “In these moments of conflict, we believe strongly in the need to protect the privacy of members of our community: our students, patients, faculty and staff.”

The misguided title of Capilouto’s statement might lead a casual reader into believing that UK has some sort of moral middle ground in this decision. They don’t.

Sensitive information – the names of victims in this case – would be redacted per the university, and this confidential information wouldn’t be printed regardless. Both the Kernel and the Herald have policies disallowing the publication of such information.

History is repeating itself, in more ways than one.

According to an article in the Bowling Green Daily News, at the launch event for Sexual Assault Prevention Month, Ransdell referenced the lawsuit, saying, “I will always protect the identity of the victim … The right to privacy is a fundamental human right, and only she or he has the right to choose to make the crime against her or him public.”

The Herald whole-heartedly agrees with this notion, and so does Attorney General Andy Beshear. His office gave the university the option to submit the records to his office with redacted names and personal identifiers, but WKU declined.

What exactly is Ransdell doing here? There are two possible scenarios and neither are hopeful.

There’s the possibility Ransdell is misguided and doesn’t understand how open records requests work. That’s troubling on a fundamental level.

The second possibility is that Ransdell knows exactly what he’s doing.

In a year of “alternative facts” and mistruths, this could be Ransdell crafting his own reality distortion field designed to dissuade truth-seekers. By conflating values and opacity, Ransdell is attempting to make the murky desirable.

It’s anything but.

At the Sexual Assault Prevention Month kickoff, Ransdell also said, “I could really care less about the privacy of one who has been found guilty of sexual assault.”

If that’s the case, he should be a proponent for transparency and truth.

Ransdell didn’t stop there. He continued: “If you want to put a chill on sexual assault prevention, then make it clear to women or men who choose not to go to the police, but who want to file a complaint that their personal choice is subject to open records … Nothing would do more to deter women from coming forward more than the knowledge that their own pain will be proclaimed in the media.”

Make no mistake: Ransdell is demonizing free press, portraying journalists as unethical, heartless ruffians who will stop at nothing for a good story.

The gravity of this false narrative has the power to discourage victims of sexual assault from letting their voices be heard, and only empowers their abusers.

By spreading misinformation, intentional or not, Ransdell is adding to the noise pollution surrounding the case. As we witnessed with the rise of fake news in this past election cycle, if you shout something long enough – regardless of what you’re saying – people will eventually accept it as a general truth.

Let’s not let this be the latest case. Be diligent. Don’t take things at face value. Be on your guard.

The truth is out there, but rarely is it easily attainable.

Correction: A previous version of this column made reference to the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. In this context, what should have been referred to was the Kentucky Open Records Act. FOIA is specifically used to request records at the federal level. The Herald regrets the error.