Kentucky attorney general sides with Eastern Kentucky student newspaper in request to open campus police records

KENTUCKY — Editors of the Eastern Progress, studentnewspaper for Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, scored a victory for openrecords in an appeal to the Kentucky attorney general that challenged theuniversity’s redaction of information from campus police reports.

The Kentucky attorney general agreed with the Progress‘ argumentthat the university had overstepped the law in redacting — or removing– addresses and other personal information from campus police departmentreports obtained by the Progress through a Freedom of Information Actrequest.

For several years, student police writers had been growing frustrated withextensive redactions in the free reports the campus police department provided. Progress editor and former police reporter Ben Kleppinger noted that someredactions — such as the removal of addresses — did not seem tocomply with the Kentucky statute cited by the university.

This statute, Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 61.878(1)(a), allows a stateemployee to withhold disclosure of otherwise-public information as long as it is”of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute aclearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The campus police department had been voluntarily supplying theProgress with free police reports on a weekly basis; the university tookthe position that it could freely redact these summary reports. A full reportmade via an FOIA request could be redacted only if all redacted information wasof the “personal nature” described by KRS 61.878.

“At the beginning of 2008, we noticed [the redactions] were gettingespecially bad,” Kleppinger said. “They were censoring stuff that was justabsurd.”

He and his then-editor, Marty Finley, decided to file an FOI request forthe full reports. When the requested reports arrived with many of theredactions still in place, Kleppinger appealed to the attorney general’s office,which agreed that Eastern Kentucky had overstepped the law by removing addressesfrom the reports. The attorney general cited a 2004 decision that allowed theredaction only of addresses relating to sex offenses.

“We are aware of no prohibition on disclosure of campus addresses appearingin an incident report, or according them greater protection, with the exceptionof the addresses, whether campus or home, of victims of sexual offenses,”Attorney General Jack Conway stated in the July 24 decision.

Kleppinger and the Progress staff are thrilled by the outcome of theappeal.

“Basically, it verified everything we claimed when we made our appeal,”Kleppinger said. “It told the university that they can’t censor just whateverthey want to in the police reports based on the KRS statute they wereciting.”

Progress adviser Reggie Beehner praised Kleppinger for filing theinitial requests and appeal largely on his own.

“I’m just proud of Ben, that he saw what he thought was unjustified actionand took it upon himself to see it through to the end,” Beehner said.

Kleppinger acknowledges that the Progress continues to facechallenges. The police department can still redact information from the freereports, and FOIA requests can take several days to be completed. He hopes theuniversity will put pressure on the police department to be more open withinformation in the first place.

A representative for Eastern Kentucky confirmed that the university hasaccepted the attorney general’s opinion and is working to balance personalprivacy with the requirements of open records.

“Eastern Kentucky University strives to provide information requestedthrough the Kentucky Open Records Act in accordance with the statutes and thatare consistent with Attorney General opinions,” Associate Vice President ofPublic Relations Marc Whitt stated in an e-mail. “In light of the recentAG’s opinion, the University is specifically reviewing how it providespolice reports to The Eastern Progress.”