Newspaper sues Alaska university over access to arrest records

ALASKA —- The University of Alaska at Fairbanksstudent newspaper has sued the university for withholding campus police reportson the arrest of a county government assembly member. The SunStar filed the lawsuit Oct. 10 after the university denied the newspaper’srequest for the arrest records of Rick Solie, a member of the North Star BoroughAssembly. The university claimed that disclosing Solie’s arrest records couldconstitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The newspaperargues that, as a public figure, Solie does not have such broad privacyrights.Solie was arrested on Aug. 30 and charged with driving under theinfluence and refusing to submit to a Breathalyzer test. Along with theFairbanks Daily News-Miner and KTVF-Channel 11, the student newspaperrequested records of the arrest, which include audio and videorecordings.Rick Solie’s wife, Cherie Solie, who heads the Fairbanksoffice for Gov. Frank Murkowski, was in the vehicle at the time of the arrest. The couple requested the records remain confidential.The lawsuit namesthe university, Solie and his wife as defendants. “The main issue is notRick Solie’s privacy but his wife’s,” said Bob Miller, director of publicaffairs for the University of Alaska system. “I would be greatly surprised ifthese records are released. I’m behind the university all the way onthis.”Alaska’s Public Records Act includes a provision that publicentities may withhold records if disclosure “could reasonably be expected toconstitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of a suspect,defendant, victim, or witness.”The Sun Star says the lawsuit is achance to challenge Alaska’s overly broad privacy protectionlaws.”Alaska’s privacy laws are very strongly worded, but we stillbelieve this information is public record,” said Sharice Walker, managing editorfor the Sun Star. “This is going to be a very important case forclarifying media access laws in Alaska.”Walker said the newspaper suedon a matter of open-records principle, but also has a genuine interest in thedetails of the arrest. “I have questions about how the arrest washandled,” Walker said.In response to the Sun Star‘s request,James A. Parrish, the university’s general counsel, wrote a letter to thenewspaper stating the university’s reasons for declining the request. “In order to avoid the potential of violating either the intent of thestatute or the Alaska Constitutional Right of Privacy … I have advised theuniversity to deny the requests,” Parrish wrote. He said, however, thatthe university was unsure whether the privacy concerns outweighed thepublic-access concerns in the case.”Because it is not clear that theright of privacy extends to the requested records, if a requesting party filesan appeal to a superior court or action to require production of the records,whether or not it is a party, the university will not take a position on themerits, but will deposit a copy of the records with the court for its review anddisposition,” Parrish wrote.Neither Parrish nor the newspaper’s lawyerreturned phone calls seeking comment.Solie has since pleaded no contestand received a sentence of three days in jail. He later apologized for hisactions and stepped down as the county assembly’s presiding officer. Solie’s term on the assembly will be over at the end of October, atwhich point he will not run again because of term limits.