University of Kentucky will sue student newspaper over open records dispute

Published: Aug. 9, 2016 at 6:11 PM EDT
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The University of Kentucky will pursue legal action against the independent student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, after Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear sided with the newspaper on an open records request.

The Kentucky Kernel's new editor-in-chief, Marjorie Kirk, starts her senior year of school knee-deep in real-world journalism issues.

"I just kind of hope it shows people that we mean business," Kirk said.

In April, the paper sent an open records request to the university asking for documents regarding allegations of sexual harassment by a tenured faculty member. The university sent some documents, but not others.

"As we were going through them, we saw what we thought were some incomplete explanations," Kirk said.

The Kernel's staff appealed to the attorney general's office to force the university to release the rest of the documents. On Monday, Beshear announced he had sided with the Kernel.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, they sided with us! I can't believe it!'," Kirk said.

The university, though, will fight that decision. UK spokesman Jay Blanton said information in those documents might reveal the identity of the person who made the complaint, even if the person's name is removed.

"It's about the trust that people put in us. When they come and report a crime, they step outside their comfort zone and they report a crime to us where they have been victimized, think about the chilling effect that it would have if they thought we might disclose that information to somebody," Blanton said.

In order to appeal the attorney general's decision, the university must file litigation against the organization who made the original request. To fight the decision, their only course of action is to sue the student newspaper.

"This is the way the process is supposed to work. When you disagree, you go to the courts and you ask for a neutral third-party to give you an opinion," Blanton said.

Kirk said she understands. She doesn't hold it against the university.

"This was their only available course of action, basically, and so we understand why they did it," she said.

Kernel staff have not figure out how they'll fund their legal fight. Kirk said the Kentucky Press Association had helped them in the past. Whatever comes next, the young editor is ready to continue this real-world learning experience.

"I am inspired by all of this to just keep pushing and to keep fighting for what I believe the public is entitled to," Kirk said.