Florida university asks court to order student journalists to pay its attorney’s fees, after open-records lawsuit

In an unusual move, the University of Central Florida is asking a court to order a student-run news site to pay the university’s legal fees in an open records lawsuit.

In February 2013, KnightNews.com filed a lawsuit against UCF’s board of trustees and president, arguing that the school had excessively redacted public records and shut reporters and the public out of student disciplinary hearings regarding hazing allegations against the fraternity chapter Alpha Tau Omega.

The university had prevailed on 16 of the 17 counts asserted by KnightNews.com, although KnightNews.com is appealing. Four of those counts were under Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Act.

In a filing issued Wednesday, UCF petitioned Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals to order the online news organization to pay attorney fees regarding those four Sunshine Act counts.

“It’s one thing to defend your position in court and aggressively defend it, but here we have a situation where a university is not only denying records and access to meetings to the college newspaper but is seeking to sanction them for trying to conduct journalism,” said attorney Mark Caramanica, who, along with the Student Press Law Center and other press-rights groups, filed an amicus brief on behalf of KnightNews.com in March.

With the Sunshine Act claims, KnightNews.com sought to require UCF to open all future student organization disciplinary hearings to the public, and to prepare and produce disciplinary hearing minutes for public inspection. KnightNews.com also asked the court to rule that UCF’s hearing regulations are unconstitutional, given the closure of the hearings, and that any actions taken by UCF at Alpha Tau Omega’s 2012 disciplinary hearing are null and void.

UCF, in the filing, called those charges “baseless,” “filed and maintained in bad faith” and “frivolous.”

The university had held that its student disciplinary proceedings have never been open to the public, a precedent set by United States v. Miami University, and that it’s not a sunshine violation “when a governmental executive uses staff for a fact-finding and advisory function in fulfilling his or her duties.” The trial court ruled in favor of UCF in July 2014.

Normally, parties in lawsuits each pay their own attorney fees. According to Florida statute, the court can require the plaintiff to pay a “reasonable attorney’s fee” if the court finds the lawsuit was “filed in bad faith or was frivolous.”

State law also says that the losing party or its attorney can be found responsible for the attorney’s fee if they “knew or should have known that a claim … when initially presented to the court or at any time before trial: (a) was not supported by the material facts necessary to establish the claim …; or (b) would not be supported by the application of then-existing law to those material facts.”

The motion does not specify an amount of attorney fees that the firm expects to obtain. A 2010 survey by the National Law Journal indicated that the university’s law firm, Orlando-based GrayRobinson, charges between $150 and $750 per hour for its attorneys’ time depending on seniority.

Caramanica called it an “over-the-top maneuver to go against the university’s publication and essentially its own students.”

“To go after a student newspaper that is already operating on a modest budget, it seems to be a heavy-handed approach,” he said.