WYOMING — A state judge’s ruling last week that the University of Wyoming must make public documents containing the identities of the school’s presidential search finalists might become void if the state’s lawmakers approve newly introduced legislation.
On Thursday, one day after the state judge’s ruling, lawmakers introduced a bill that would keep documents related to presidential searches secret. The bill was unanimously passed out of committee today in Wyoming’s House of Representatives.
It’s not clear how the proposed legislation would affect the judge’s ruling. In his ruling, Judge Jeffrey Donnell set a Feb. 5 deadline for the university to release the finalists’ names.
Chad Baldwin, the university’s director of institutional communications, said if HB 223 becomes a law, it would prevent the finalists’ names from being released. Bruce Moats, an attorney who represented the media, called that a “$24 million question” and said he’s doing research to determine whether the law would override the judge’s ruling.
The bill, which amends the state’s public record inspection statute, would definitely affect future presidential searches at the University of Wyoming and community colleges in the state. All records or information relating to the search process would be made private if their release would identify a candidate.
In November, The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, The Casper Star-Tribune and The Associated Press filed a lawsuit against the university and its board of trustees seeking get access to documents including meeting schedules and itineraries that would reveal finalists’ names, Casper Star-Tribune Editor Darrell Ehrlick said.
The media organizations were seeking to serve the public’s best interest, Ehrlick said, and filed suit when it became clear the university would not release the documents.
“We had a lot of back and forth conversations,” Ehrlick said. “It was pretty clear, though, that the university had its position and it was strong and we had a position that was equally strong. What are you going to do? They disagree, we disagree.”
Baldwin said there was concern that candidates might opt out of the race if their names were made public, and that has evidently been the case. Since the judge’s ruling last week, four of the eight semi-finalists have withdrawn, Baldwin said.
“If the bill passes, will they come back in?” Baldwin asked. “I don’t know, I would hope so.”
Ehrlick said the judge’s ruling would let the public “do their research” on the finalists and share their opinions with the university’s board of trustees. The desire to make public the finalists’ names was intensified by the fact that the University of Wyoming is the only four-year university in the state, he said.
“The public is really interested in that particular university,” Ehrlick said. “There are not the divided loyalties that there may be in other states.”
Bridget Wilson, news editor for the University of Wyoming’s student newspaper, said with the names made public, her staff could do their jobs more effectively. The staff would be able to report on the candidates and on students’ opinions of them.
“For the most part, the administration’s pretty good about getting us information, about talking to us, but this just opens it up even more,” Wilson said.
The University of Wyoming could appeal the judge’s decision, but the school’s board of trustees has not yet met to make that decision, Baldwin said.
To become law, HB 223 would have to pass three readings in the House. If it does, it will be assigned to a committee in the Senate and pass three readings in the full body. Then the bill would go to the state’s governor for approval or veto.
By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.