WYOMING — Editors of the Branding Iron are consideringsuing the University of Wyoming for withholding the details oftwo on-campus sexual assaults.
Editors are seeking the release of locations and witness namesunder the state open-records law after limited information aboutthe incidents was released on April 5. The reports omitted allnames, including the alleged suspects, victims and witnesses,as well as the location of the incidents.
"It was basically a narrative with no particular informationat all," editor Kiah Wilkins said. "I was afraid torun it because, with what little information I had, I was concernedthat it might be libelous."
Frustrated by the lack of details, Wilkins decided to publisha scanned copy of the report along with one victim’s testimonyon the front page.
"It was the only thing I thought I could do at the time,"she said. Now she and other editors at the Branding Ironare contemplating a suit against the university for withholdingcampus crime information according to Wyoming open-records laws.The information may also be sought under the Jeanne Clery Disclosureof Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, a federallaw that requires colleges and universities across the UnitedStates to disclose information about crime on and around theircampuses.
Wilkins, with the support of the student publications boardthat oversees the paper, decided to consult attorney Bruce Moats.On May 13, Moats filed an objection to the lack of informationwith the campus police chief. He is now considering how to pursuethe matter in court.
"It’s a very thorny question because the Branding Ironis not an independent publication," Moats said. "Essentially,we need to know if the school can sue itself."
Moats said it is not impossible due to a provision in the university’sbylaws that allows the student publications board to "fulfillthe normal responsibilities of a publisher," including establishingregulations and procedures for publications and retaining professionalstaff to assist the board.
"In looking at the policy and practices of the industry,certainly publishers do fund litigation," Moats said. "Ibelieve that they do have that responsibility."
If the Branding Iron is unable to sue, the board islooking into other possibilities, including suing under individualeditors’ names with possible financial backing from the WyomingPress Association.
No decision will be made until the student publications boardmeets again in fall, but board member Reed Eckhardt said he willcontinue to support the students if they decide to go ahead withthe lawsuit. Eckhardt, who has been involved in past litigationas managing editor of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, has evencontemplated suing the university himself but opted against it.
"That cuts the kids out," Eckhardt said. "Theymay get access to the reports, but they’re not in the learningprocess. The administration, in my point of view, has lost sightof that. Yes it’s their police department, yes it’s their imagebut these are also their students. They should understand thatthis is part of the learning process."
Check out the SPLC’s resources for accessing campus crime information, including “Covering Campus Crime” and the Student Media Guide to the Clery Act.