WKU to appeal Attorney General’s decision over Herald records request

WKU+to+appeal+Attorney+General%27s+decision+over+Herald+records+request

Nicole Ares

WKU announced Monday it would appeal an open records decision to the Warren County Circuit, meaning it will sue the College Heights Herald, according to university officials.

The Herald was notified informally of the appeal via an email from WKU General Counsel Deborah Wilkins on Monday.

“We did receive the opinion. We will be appealing the decision to the Warren Circuit Court,” the email from Wilkins read.

The decision comes after the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General ruled on Jan. 26 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.

Since the opinion of the Attorney General has the “force and effect of law” the university has two options: to release the requested records or sue its student newspaper.

WKU President Gary Ransdell told a Herald reporter Monday the decision to appeal was based on the universities responsibility to all of its stakeholders.

“It’s important for people to know this is about us sorting through the most responsible way to handle sexual assault on campus, not the way this administration or university feels about its College Heights Herald,” Ransdell said.

WKU has 30 days to appeal this decision to the Warren County Circuit Court formally. If it does not do so within those 30 days, the Attorney General’s decision will “have the force and effect of law,” according to the Kentucky Revised Statute 61.880(5).

The Herald requested access on Nov. 1 to all Title IX investigative records into WKU faculty and staff sexual misconduct allegations occurring in the last five years.

These records include documents of six university employee resignations since 2013 after the results of Title IX investigations found violations of university policy, according to Assistant General Counsel Andrea Anderson.

WKU denied the Herald’s request on two separate occasions, citing the Kentucky Revised Statutes exceptions to the Open Records Act which allow a public agency to withhold certain records.

WKU said the employees in question resigned or retired from their respective positions prior to any “final action” by WKU, which “did not result in the adoption of the preliminary records as the basis for final action at WKU, and therefore those records did not lose their preliminary status and therefore need not be disclosed.”

It also cited the lawsuit between the University of Kentucky and its’ student newspaper the Kentucky Kernel over a similar records request. A Fayette Circuit Court judge overturned the Attorney General’s decision, which UK should release the requested records, on Jan. 23.

Ransdell said the best outcome for the university would be for the institution to be able to determine the best course of action without making a media spectacle for victims and the accused.

“Title IX is relatively new in higher education, and these situations are basically us trying to sort out our responsibilities,” Ransdell said.

The Attorney General wrote on Dec. 7 using the ongoing Kernel lawsuit as reasoning for withholding records is not permitted by the Open Records Act.

The Herald appealed the records request denial to the Attorney General, and on Nov. 29, the Attorney General’s office requested copies of the records involved from WKU, which WKU denied.

The Attorney General’s office 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.”

The Attorney General issued its final opinion on Jan. 26 that WKU must make “immediate provision” for the student reporters who filed the requests to “inspect and copy the disputed records with the exception of names and personal identifiers of the complainant and witnesses.”

The Herald will update this story as more information is made available.

Reporter Nicole Ares can be reached at 270-745-2655 and [email protected]