LSU student editor files suit against school seeking names of presidential candidates

LOUISIANA — The editor of Louisiana State University’s student newspaper filed suit today against the school seeking names of applicants for the school’s top position.

Andrea Gallo, editor-in-chief of LSU’s The Daily Reveille, had a public record request denied earlier this month for the names of any and all applicants for the top job at LSU, a newly created position that will combine the previous positions of president of the LSU System and chancellor of its flagship campus in Baton Rouge.

The school said it could not provide Gallo with the records because it does not have the applications. The search was conducted through the school’s private foundation, which hired a private search consultant, William R. Funk and Associates.

Gallo first threatened legal action in a March letter written by attorney Scott Sternberg, a former Reveille editor, to all three parties involved in the candidate search. The letter asked the school to seek an opinion from Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell and challenged the legality of funneling the search process for a public figure through two private entities.

Last Wednesday, the board officially recognized F. King Alexander as its next president. Alexander, the current president of California State University-Long Beach, was the only finalist named for the position.

In a statement Monday, Gallo said she had hoped the university would comply with the records request, avoiding legal action.

“I was hoping throughout the entire search process that LSU would work with us so we, as reporters, could give our readers insight into who the next president of LSU would be and what qualities we were looking for in that person,” Gallo said. “It became apparent pretty early on that our access was not only limited, but practically blacked out.”

LSU System’s lead legal counsel Shelby McKenzie officially denied Gallo’s request last Thursday, a day after the board met in private to discuss the public records requests it received for candidates’ names and applications. The denial letter describes LSU’s efforts to maintain privacy as a “standard” practice used by institutions of higher education across the country.

“Your suggestion that there has been some sort of deliberate effort to evade the Public Records Law is completely misdirected,” LSU attorney Jimmy Faircloth wrote. “It is virtually certain that LSU would not have had access to a sufficiently qualified pool of persons to even consider if the process had been administered publically through the system office.”

Sternberg has said that using private foundations to perform public duties is a creative new way for universities to add another layer of privacy. Also a former board member at LSU, Sternberg told the SPLC last month that while he understands LSU’s concern that candidates won’t apply to a public search for fear of retribution by their current employers, it still violates “the spirit and letter” of the state’s public records law.

Alexander reportedly told the Reveille he would not have entered the race had he known his name would be public.

The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s local newspaper, also joined Gallo in filing a separate lawsuit Monday. In February, the paper was denied a records request for the names.

The Advocate’s executive editor could not be reached for comment.

Sternberg would not say yet whether The Advocate’s separate suit would in some way be consolidated with Gallo’s, although he acknowledged “we have the same goal.”

Gallo’s lawsuit, filed in a state district court in Baton Rouge, demands a hearing on the matter within 10 days.

“While a sole ‘finalist’ for the LSU President has since been named and appointed, the other candidates for the position are still newsworthy and their applications are public records under the law,” the complaint reads. “If the actions of Defendants are allowed to carry the day, future searches for public officers will be shrouded in the same secrecy as the 2013 LSU President search.”

Sternberg did not have any further comment about the case beyond the lawsuit.

“It think the lawsuit speaks for itself,” Sternberg said. “We told them we were serious, and we are serious.”

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Contact Moore by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.