Student journalist challenges University of Wisconsin for records in investigation of professor

WISCONSIN — When a professor was pulled out of a lecture and suddenly stopped teaching his other classes, Alex Nemec, a student journalist at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, filed records requests to find out why. Nemec has encountered two hurdles to accessing records, the first imposed by the University and the second by the professor himself.

Nemec, the news editor of The Advance-Titan, requested information from the university in March for relevant documents pertaining to Willis Hagen, a business professor of more than 30 years at UW Oshkosh. The request included Hagen’s emails from the Spring 2017 semester and university police reports. The school denied access to the records, claiming that they were subject to an ongoing investigation.

“In response to [The Advance-Titan’s] follow-up request for records (police and email) relating to Dr. Will Hagen, I’m unable to provide you records at this time,” Public Records Custodian Kate McQuillan told the newspaper. “The University has an ongoing investigation involving Dr. Hagen. Pursuant to Wis. Stat. sec 19.36(10)(b), I am prohibited from releasing the requested records.”

In response to a follow-up request from the newspaper, the university agreed to produce some of Hagen’s personnel records. But Hagen then went to court seeking to enjoin the university from fulfilling the records request on May 3, citing multiple justifications.

The overarching theme was that the records involve personnel matters and to release them would violate his privacy as an employee. More specific points claimed that the “release of the requested record could lead to the potential chilling of candid employee assessments in personnel records” and that the “subject record contains information that was gathered and obtained based on an express and/or implied promise of confidentiality.”

Nemec filed a motion to intervene on Aug. 8, asking that the court dismiss Hagen’s petition and order the records released.

Nemec’s counsel, Christa Westerberg and Aaron Dumas, wrote in a petition to the court that the records requested are the “most reliable and authoritative means of verifying why Hagen was removed.” The petition also contended that “the behavior or prominent members of college faculties is a member of undeniable public interest and concern” and that personnel matters are not categorically exempted by Wisconsin’s records law. Westerberg and Dumas are attorneys with Pines Bach LLP and part of the SPLC’s Attorney Referral Network.

A telephone conference hearing before a judge will take place on Aug. 21 where Nemec’s motion to intervene will be considered.

SPLC staff writer Shine Cho can be reached by email or (202)785-5451.

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