School kills policy of blocking victims' names

KENTUCKY — The state attorney general squashed a short-lived policy created by the University of Kentucky to black out victims’ names on police incident reports, saying it violated the state’s open-records law.

In October, attorney General Greg Stumbo said that the university failed to meet its burden of proof that releasing victims’ identities would violate their right to privacy, after it denied the student newspaper’s request for eight police incident reports. Allowing a victim to choose whether to release their information was not sufficient to meet that burden of proof, he said.

University police began a policy in August that allowed victims to choose to have their information kept private if the report was released under an open-records request.

The attorney general said the public has a legitimate interest in the incident reports and the information released results in a minimal invasion of privacy. Full disclosure in the public interest is considered superior to an individual’s privacy unless the police can prove “a heightened privacy interest,” Stumbo said.

Kentucky Kernel Editor in Chief Emily Hagedorn said she expected the attorney general to rule against the university’s policy.

“It seemed like such a clear-cut case of a violation of the open-records law,” she said.

Jon Fleischaker, attorney for the Kentucky Press Association and the Kentucky Kernel, said law enforcement agencies in Kentucky are “always” trying to keep information from the public.

“This is just another effort under the guise of privacy to withhold relevant information, especially on the university campus, about what was going on and where it was going on,” he said.

Previously, the attorney general ruled police cannot adopt a broad policy of withholding names, but that addresses, phone numbers and other information can be withheld. Identifying victims’ names gives the public an opportunity to scrutinize the police, Stumbo wrote. Previous Kentucky Supreme Court decisions said the names of juveniles and sexual assault victims do not need to be released.

The policy was instituted after a campus employee, the victim of an assault on campus, requested his name be withheld. University of Kentucky Counsel General Barbara Jones said she tried to find a way to protect his identity, but ultimately could not and released his name.

Jones said the university will not appeal the decision and will immediately revert back to old police incident report forms. Police will release information previously blacked out if a request is made, she said.

Fleischaker said the decision is “very significant because the students stood up and said ‘We’re not going to let you do this’ and the administration backed down. They challenged it and they won. It at least put the brakes on in terms of the university trying to close other records that should be open.”

Although the attorney general typically rules against attempts to close records, Fleischaker said other universities in the state could try tactics similar to what the University of Kentucky attempted.

“It can happen any time,” he said. “But it won’t happen for a while.”

Read previous coverage:

  • Ky. school officials begin withholding crime victims’ names News Flash, 9/27/2004