A fight for the college press is underway in Kentucky.
In case you didn’t know, the flagship university of that state is suing its student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel. The lawsuit concerns articles the newspaper published about a professor accused of sexual assault — and documents related to the case that the university doesn’t want public.
With some exceptions, the events that led to the lawsuit were routine. After the student newspaper requested records concerning the accused professor, James Harwood, the university provided a limited sampling of what they had, while withholding the full investigation.
Then things got dicey. The newspaper appealed to the attorney general, who defended the right of the public to receive public documents, including the full investigation. To appeal the ruling of the attorney general, the university was required to name the student newspaper as a party in the suit. After the university announced they would be suing the newspaper, an anonymous source provided the paper with a document that appeared to be the full investigation into James Harwood.
This week, Sept. 16, will be the first hearing in the case. The university will be making the same arguments universities always make when fighting against transparency. In a statement, U. Kentucky President Eli Capilouto said the university complies with 90 percent of public records requests. “But in a handful of very specific cases, we are faced with the decision of whether transparency is more important than the need to protect the privacy and dignity of individual members of our community,” Capilouto said. “It is not.”
Protecting the identities of victims of sexual assault is admirable. But that’s not what this case is about. Neither the attorney general nor the student newspaper has said that the names of the accusers ought to be published — in fact, both have boldly and repeatedly said the opposite. Moreover, a spokesperson for the victims, who has been working with the Kernel since March, told the newspaper that they would prefer the investigation were made public with the names of the victims redacted.
As is the case at most newspapers, it is the Kernel’s policy not to identify victims of sexual assault anyway. Given the evidence, it’s hard to believe the university is acting in the interests of the victims. The truth is more shameful: they are hiding behind the victims to protect themselves and set a precedent that makes it harder for journalists to keep them accountable.
The staff of the Kentucky Kernel deserve to be applauded for their work. They are doing the real work of journalism: holding the powerful accountable. While universities around the country are able to spend millions of dollars employing communications staff and high-powered attorneys, the Kernel, like all college newspapers, must rely only on the strength of their reporting.
Time and again, The Flat Hat has relied on open records laws to do its job (sometimes meeting resistance). In a system that benefits campus authorities at every step, these laws — and their faithful application — are one of the only tools the student body has to protect its own interests.
The Kernel’s reporting was strong as any. With access to the full investigation, the Kernel was able to inform its readers that Harwood was accused not just of sexual harassment, but also of sexual assault, and that there were five victims. The conclusion of the investigation, made public by the Kernel, was that enough evidence existed for a reasonable person to believe the accusations were true. In the absence of the Kernel’s reporting, it is likely Harwood, who resigned before a hearing was called, would have been able to work at another university.
The Kernel has set an example that journalists at all levels should aspire to, particularly student journalists who are tasked with holding their college administrations accountable. They have conducted themselves with great tact while facing down those who would at first appear to be far more powerful than they are. They have produced high quality reporting to be proud of — and which may have kept students safe from harm.
We wish those at The Kernel good luck this week. We will be watching from across the country in solidarity.