University of Kentucky faculty and Bluegrass SPJ come out swinging in statements to UK President Capilouto

Since the University of Kentucky filed suit against its independent student newspaper last month, university President Eli Capilouto and the school’s administration have faced local and national criticism for making such an unusually aggressive move against their own students.

Critics also believe the university intentionally withheld documents responsive to a student newspaper’s public-records request that the UK had a legal obligation to disclose.

Among the university’s harshest critics are 15 UK journalism faculty, who hand-delivered a letter to Capilouto on Thursday, objecting to his “insulting treatment” of the Kentucky Kernel and its staff and calling on Capilouto to drop the lawsuit against the Kernel.

“When you told the Board of Trustees that the Kernel, in its story about the James Harwood sexual-assault case, published “salacious details to attract readers,” you impugned the reputation of the newspaper and its editor, Marjorie Kirk, and cast aspersions on journalism faculty who have taught, and are teaching, Kernel staff. An apology is called for.”

Worse, during that same Sept. 9 board meeting, members of the board received copies of letters from two of the victims — one of which, according to the Kernel, was not perfectly redacted. A fact that, in light of the president’s pleas for victim privacy, the faculty were not about to let slide.

“Making matters worse, you selectively released letters from the victims to make your case, and one of the letters revealed the first name of one of the victims. It was Marjorie Kirk who alerted your staff to that violation.”

The state’s attorney general ordered the university to release redacted copies of an internal investigation in August, and the university responded with a lawsuit. The attorney general, Andy Beshear, has since filed a motion to intervene.

In a written response to the faculty’s letter, university spokesperson Jay Blanton told the Kernel, “This issue has been, and remains, about the privacy of victim survivors. We respect and appreciate the voice of our faculty and the concerns articulated by those in the Journalism program. But this disagreement rests where it should – in a court of law.”

Despite the university’s continued arguments for victim privacy, the 15 signatories of the letter maintain that the persistence and veracity of the Kernel’s reporting has been a far greater service — more victims did come forward accusing Harwood of sexual misconduct only after the accusations against Harwood came to light.

“You should be thanking the Kernel for helping protect victims’ rights, not accusing it of violating them – especially in this case, where the victims went to the Kernel to get the full story told,”

If the faculty letter wasn’t loud enough, the Bluegrass Professional Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists brought a mic to the party. In a statement released late Friday, the organization applauded the tenacity and integrity of the Kernel:

“Journalism at the University of Kentucky is alive and well. That may be the only good thing about the current battle between President Eli Capilouto and the independent student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, but it’s a really good thing.”

And pointed out the grim irony of their current predicament:

“If the controversy were between the newspaper and anyone else, Capilouto would be proud of the courage and determination shown by the student reporters and editors, and of the professors who obviously have trained them well.”

Critics of the university’s decision to sue the Kernel call the move misguided — noting the university’s repeated refusals to comply with the attorney general’s request to review records to make an independent determination of whether they qualify as confidential.

The faculty’s concerns go beyond one freedom-of-information request to the larger issue of how journalists and the public can hold the university accountable if UK continually defies the attorney general and deems itself the arbiter of what records are and are not public.

“…we are deeply concerned about the larger First Amendment principles of accountability and transparency, and your contravention of a state law that makes the attorney general the initial arbiter of disputes under the Open Records Act and the Open Meetings Act. By refusing to submit documents for confidential review, you are substituting your judgment for that of the attorney general, who is a judicial officer bound by the rules of confidentiality.”

In a stinging front-page editorial published Thursday, the Kernel called the university’s position an exercise in image control.

“UK’s practices would have never come under public scrutiny if it was not for the spokesperson for the victims who told the Kernel about the investigation,” the Kernel’s editorial board wrote. “They showed that at UK, people who have been charged with violations hold too much power. The university gives the accused privacy in matters the public has a right to know.”

As it stands at UK and many other public universities, faculty accused of sexual misconduct have the choice of settling with the institution, resigning and moving on to another university, or completing a formal disciplinary process. These employment provisions mirror federal Title IX guidelines and, at UK, allow faculty the assurance of privacy and ability to move from university to university, undetected, in “a system built for the accused, not for the victims.”

Kirk took special care to address the concerns of victims and victims’ rights advocates in her own editorial, shedding light on the reporting process and editorial decision-making in an effort to be transparent with readers.

Capilouto and the UK administration continue insisting that they’re fighting to conceal the records out of concern for victim privacy, even though the records have already been released to the Kernel, which in any event had agreed to accept them with victim’s identifying information removed. As the Bluegrass SPJ states:

“Capilouto suggests only he can protect the privacy of students who are victims of predators, and that it can only be done by withholding records. That’s a false claim. The newspaper has practiced professional ethics in its restraint. Even though it has those names and even though the university inadvertently released one name, they have not been published. The president is protecting only the administration and its policies.”

And, as the faculty wrote:

“In difficult cases like the Harwood matter, we believe the interests of privacy, and transparency that serves accountability, can be balanced with thoughtful redaction of the documents.”

As the Kernel’s editorial board wrote, “It is now clear that the university is fighting for secrecy, not for privacy. It is fighting for itself, not for victims.”

The case between the Kernel and UK is ongoing, but as of Friday afternoon, Beshear’s motion to intervene in the case was approved after both the university and the newspaper agreed to the intervention at a hearing.