Opinion: Open Records Act under attack.


The free speech of Kentuckians is under attack and here is why you should care.

On March 25, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper at the University of Kentucky, in an open records lawsuit filed by the University of Kentucky. UK filed the lawsuit after refusing to disclose records to the Kernel about a sexual misconduct case from five years ago. UK’s argument for denying the requested documents was to keep the identity of the victims safe but the ruling found that went against the Open Records Act. 

Was the Supreme Court ruling just, or should the court have ruled in favor of the university? 

First, why did UK file the lawsuit against the Kentucky Kernel? In 2015, former professor of entomology James Harwood, was accused by multiple men and women of sexual assault and harassment. Before Harwood could be tried in a sexual misconduct hearing, he resigned from his job at UK. 

In 2015, the Kernel wanted to write an article explaining the misconduct, as the UK community deserved to know what was happening on their campus. To do this, the student journalists needed access to the university’s records concerning the case. The 112-page record contained the details of the case against Harwood, and about three years worth of allegations against the professor. Upon realizing that the university had withheld certain records, the Kernel confronted the university’s administration, which led to the university taking the student media organization to court. 

The attorney general at the time, Andy Beshear, ruled that the documents should be public, which allowed the Kernel to access the records. After that ruling, attorneys for UK filed the lawsuit against the Kernel even though the newspaper had a policy in place not to identify the victims in its reporting unless given explicit permission from the victims themselves.  You would think the university would already know this, as this is its own student newspaper. If they did know the policy, why would they try so hard to cover up the names of the victims? 

The Open Records Act was established by the General Assembly in 1976 which allows access to public records. All public records, no matter where they are stored, are available to the public and open for viewing unless they are under certain exemptions listed in the act itself. This is important to every citizen, especially journalists. Journalists request access to public records all the time, as this is how we get most of our information for our editorials. 

The Open Records Act ensures that crimes such as sexual assault can’t be covered up by public institutions. The UK administration claims they were trying to protect the victims’ identities, but the victims say otherwise. The victims claim that the university was trying to protect themselves and Harwood, which wouldn’t surprise a lot of people. There have been many universities that have covered up sexual assaults so as to not damage the university’s reputation. 

This case was not only a win for the Kernel but for all journalists and student journalists in the Commonwealth, including The News. Journalists are expected to be watchdogs when taxpayer funds are being used, whether that be from politicians, police officers or a public university’s administration. The Open Records Act protects our ability, our free speech (and yours) by allowing access to public documents and records. Could you imagine what would happen if no one was keeping an eye on those who serve our communities? 

Senate Bill 48, which recently passed in Kentucky, restricts access to public information about current or former police officers, judges, prosecutors and their immediate family members. 

If an officer wanted to, he or she could request their public record be scrubbed of property tax records, vehicle registration, marriage records, birthdate and employment locations and assignments. At a time in our country when people need to know the truth, the media will not be able to access certain information on these public servants if they so choose to have their records redacted now that the bill has passed. This would make corrupt police officers, judges and prosecutors virtually untouchable by the public media, and render them unable to dig up the dirt when it needs to come to light. 

How is this supposed to promote equality among all citizens that the country desperately seeks right now? What would this have meant for the officers involved in the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor deaths? Is SB 48 supposed to protect the individuals in these roles? If so, why? Why should a police officer or judge’s information be redacted in public records but mine and yours are fair game?

We here at The News call upon Gov. Andy Beshear to veto SB 48, as did the Kentucky Press Association, an organization we are members of. We took one step forward with the Kernel win against UK but two steps back with SB 48. Your right, our right to know and access documents that are vital to a free society is at risk. This bill goes well beyond the media and directly impacts those in the banking industry, the public’s right to know information about candidates running for office, among others.You can read the bill in its entirety here.

UPDATE: Governor Andy Beshear has vetoed Bill 48. Beshear stated that the legislation was “overly broad” and “impractical.” More updates to come.