KENTUCKY— Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear is joining two student newspapers in fighting back against their colleges’ attempts to withhold public records of investigations into sexual harassment complaints.
In a news release Wednesday, Beshear announced his office would intervene in lawsuits filed against student newspapers at Western Kentucky University and Kentucky State University.
Both lawsuits seek to overturn a January decision from Beshear’s office saying the universities violated Kentucky’s open record laws in not releasing documents detailing faculty sexual misconduct investigations. Reporters at both student newspapers, as well as the Kentucky Kernel, initially requested the records from the schools and appealed the subsequent denials to Beshear’s office.
Beshear’s office then requested the universities turn over the entirety of the requested documents for an “in camera,” or private, review to determine what was and wasn’t releasable. The universities refused to allow the office to even examine the documents, citing federal privacy protections.
“Without a confidential review by my office, institutions can hide serious issues related to sexual assault, ignore victims and tell parents and families that a given campus may be safer than it is,” Beshear said in the release. “Essentially, the universities’ actions are attempting to turn Kentucky’s Open Records Act into a ‘trust me’ law.”
Terry Sebastian, communications director for the Attorney General’s Office, told the SPLC the request to intervene is simply to protect the office’s statutory authority to review the documents in question. The office previously requested and was given standing to intervene in a parallel legal dispute between the University of Kentucky and the Kernel, Sebastian said.
“We will be asking the judge to rule that these universities, by Kentucky law, are required to give the AG’s office documents in camera to review so we can determine if a university is meeting the Open Records standard or not in an appeal of records,” he said in an email. “In each case (UK, KSU and WKU), the university did not hand over records to our office for us to review in camera to make our determination.
In the release, Beshear emphasized the importance of all three lawsuits and their future impact on open records-related decisions in the state of Kentucky.
“These lawsuits stab at the very heart of the Open Records law and this office’s ability to enforce it,” Beshear said. “By their actions, the universities are creating a silver bullet for any bad actor to entirely avoid the Open Records law. For a university to push such a position is entirely irresponsible.”
Sebastian said a hearing date for the University of Kentucky case has not been set yet, but the office should hear something in the near future.
SPLC staff writer Conner Mitchell can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318
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