Wyo. college revamps student pub. board after it allotted money to sue police

WYOMING — A new University of Wyoming policy protectsstudent journalists from discipline in disputes over editorial content, butconcerns still abound over how far the administration will reach in governingdecisions made by student publications. Provisions to universityregulations were unanimously approved by the board of trustees earlier thismonth that restructure the student publications board. The number studentssitting on the board was lowered, and the university president was provided moreauthority in choosing four of the 11 members. A separate clause, however, wasadded to the regulations that gives student journalists and their advisersprotection from disagreements with the administration over editorial content. The provisions were proposed by University of Wyoming President PhilipDubois and come as the latest development surrounding a dispute over the studentnewspaper’s request for campus police records.At the Jan. 11 board oftrustees meeting, Dubois reiterated his position that the student publicationsboard cannot authorize the student newspaper, the Branding Iron, or anyeditors to use newspaper funds to sue the campus police to obtain the requestedfiles.Editor Mike Owens has considered legal action against the campuspolice since last May when the Branding Iron was denied complete recordsrelating to an investigation of two sexual assaults on campus. Universityofficials blacked out the names of the alleged victims, perpetrators, witnessesand locations of the assault because, they said, university employees could beheld liable under state law if they released information that would “reasonablylikely” identify sexual assault victims. The student newspaper hasargued that the files should be released in accordance with the Wyoming PublicRecords Act, said Owens’ attorney, Bruce Moats.”[The university] tookout information that could be disclosed to the public without harming theindividuals involved,” Moats said, adding that the editors have no interest inpublishing the name of the victim.In September, the student publicationsboard authorized Owens to spend up to $2,500 from the newspaper’s accounts tosue the campus police after Dubois ruled the Branding Iron could not sueanother entity of the university. Dubois responded by saying the expenditurewould not be processed. Instead he offered to provide Owens the funds on thecondition that he not appeal the initial court decision. Dubois wants thedistrict court to determine whether the redactions in the police report wereappropriate. Owens has rejected the offer, according to Moats.Owenscould not be reached for comment, but Moats said the newspaper, or at least an individual editor, might have thelegal right to sue the university. Moats said university regulations provide thestudent publications board, as the de facto publisher, control of theBranding Iron‘s finances. “In looking at the [universityregulations] and practices of the industry, certainly publishers do fundlitigation,” he said. “I believe that they do have thatresponsibility.”Ron MCue, president of the board of trustees, saidallowing “university funds” to be used to take legal action against theuniversity could a set a dangerous precedent. “If we have each [of thenearly 100 boards under the university] independently suing the university, wewill expend our resources, on one hand pursuing them and the other handdefending a suit against ourselves. That doesn’t seem like a wise use of thepeople of Wyoming’s money,” he said. Student fees, which areallocated to student publications, pay for administrative costs including thesalaries of advisers, advertising managers and student journalists. Advertising revenue funds thepublications’ facilities, computers and printing costs.Reed Eckhardt, who is the current student publications boardchairperson, said the student publications board should be able to grant moneyto Owens.”Those funds belong to the students,” said Eckhardt. “And theyshould be able to exercise their First Amendment rights to have access to thosefunds.”MCue said the dispute over the campus police files caused theboard of trustees to “modernize the student publications board.”Theprovisions, which will go into effect next fall, will modify the makeup of the11-member board and provide the university president more authority over theselection of four members who will be drawn from the university community and atleast two Wyoming Press Association member journalists. The number of studentmembers will drop from six to five; three will be appointed by the studentsenate and two more approved by the student publications. A position filled by acommunications professor will be replaced by a faculty senate appointee and astaff senate-approved member. A clause also was inserted into theuniversity regulations that holds student publication advisers and studentjournalists accountable for “all personnel matters including hiring,compensation, evaluation, discipline and termination.” A separate clauseintroduced by Eckhardt protects the advisers and students from being disciplinedfor disagreements with the administration over editorial content.Underthe new provisions, professional journalists cannot hold the chairpersonposition on the student publications board. Also, the Wyoming Press Associationnow will provide four candidates for the student publications board, of whichthe university president will appoint at least two beginning this fall.Eckhardt, a proponent of student press rights, surmises that under the newprovisions his days on the board might be numbered.MCue said Owens stillcould sue if he paid for his attorney fees on his own. Eckhardt, who is amanaging editor with Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, said the Wyoming PressAssociation has considered funding Owens’ court case. The board oftrustees did not consider provisions proposed by the student publications boardthat would have lowered the board membership to include three students, twoprofessional journalists and two university staff members.