ALASKA – University police released reports of the arrest of a local official to the University of Alaska Fairbanks student newspaper in September as ordered by a state superior court.
The records stem from the Aug. 30, 2003, arrest of Rick Solie, a member of the North Star Borough Assembly, the legislative body of Fairbanks. Solie was charged with driving under the influence, refusing to submit to a Breathalyzer test and driving on the wrong side of the road. Solie was arrested on the University of Alaska campus by university police.
The Sept. 22, 2004, release of the records ended a year-long legal battle between the university and its student newspaper, Sun Star, which sued the school in October 2003 to gain access to the documents.
The Sun Star argued that because Solie was a public figure the records should be disclosed. The university and Solie contended that disclosing the records would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the car’s passenger, Cherie Solie, who is Solie’s wife.
The Sun Star not only wanted the audio and video tapes that were recorded by campus police at the scene, but also hoped the court would rule on how soon the media can review a completed police investigation.
“I don’t think any of us expected the privacy angle on the case,” said Brian O’Donoghue, Sun Star adviser and president of the Alaska Press Club. “We thought it was going to be a slam-dunk ruling.”
In the spring of 2004, the university was dropped as a defendant in the suit, leaving Solie as the sole defendant in the case.
After his arrest, Solie resigned from his position as the assembly’s presiding officer. In October 2003 he was sentenced to three days in jail.
When the records were handed over to the Sun Star most of the information requested was omitted, as part of a settlement, and the paper received a “bare bones” police traffic arrest report, according to O’Donoghue. Despite the compromise, Sun Star Editor Robinson Duffy called the ruling a “symbolic victory.”
O’Donoghue said the Sun Star was the first newspaper in Fairbanks to go to court for access to records. “Publishers and [news] station owners haven’t seen the values of access,” he said.
O’Donoghue noted that the university has sped up their responses to open-records requests and has been more forthcoming with records since the court’s ruling.
“The case served its purpose,” he said.