FRANKFORT, Ky. ― Kentucky’s attorney general has ratcheted up his dispute with the state’s flagship university in an open-records case that spurred the school to sue its campus newspaper after it asked for investigative documents pertaining to a professor under investigation for alleged sexual harassment.
In the latest twist, Attorney General Andy Beshear said Wednesday that he will ask a judge to order the University of Kentucky to turn over the documents to his office. He said his office is entitled by law to review the records to determine if they are exempt from public inspection.
In a rebuke of a school with legions of alumni and fans statewide, Beshear said UK’s lawsuit “stabs at the very heart” of the state’s open-records law and the AG’s ability to enforce them.
Beshear acknowledged his attempted intervention was highly unusual, but said the stakes are “too important and the ramifications are simply too great.”
“UK’s lawsuit would create a silver bullet that would allow any bad actor to entirely avoid the open-records law,” Beshear told reporters. “For a university to push such a position is entirely irresponsible, especially one that rightfully touts a First Amendment center.”
Beshear is seeking to intervene in a lawsuit that UK filed recently in Fayette County Circuit Court against the Kentucky Kernel, the Lexington campus’ student-run newspaper.
The suit appeals an earlier opinion by Beshear’s office that said the university violated the open-records law by withholding documents regarding the professor’s case from the Kernel.
UK spokesman Jay Blanton said Wednesday that the university was disappointed by Beshear’s attempt to intervene, but added that the AG’s action “does further clarify that our dispute is not with the Kentucky Kernel, but with the Office of Attorney General.”
Beshear’s action was welcomed by the attorney for the campus newspaper.
“The Kernel agrees with the comments made by (Attorney) General Beshear and welcomes his participation and support in this action,” Tom Miller said.
The Kernel has been conducting a fundraising campaign for its legal defense.
For the university, the case revolves around protecting the privacy of people who come forward with accusations of sexual wrongdoing, Blanton said.
“We believe strongly in our responsibility to protect survivors who muster the tremendous courage it takes to come forward with accusations of criminal acts,” he said.
“We believe strongly that to allow anyone ― the press, a member of our university community, an employer or any private citizen ― to access confidential records will have a chilling impact on the willingness of survivors to come forward.”
The case started this summer when the Kernel published a story about a professor who resigned from UK in February amid a sexual-harassment investigation.
UK provided its settlement agreement with the professor to the campus newspaper under the open-records law but refused to provide any investigative documents, citing the same argument Blanton offered Wednesday. The Kernel appealed to Beshear’s office.
Without access to the documents, Beshear said, his office cannot determine if they are rightfully or wrongfully being withheld from public review. He said UK is trying to apply a “trust us” approach to the open-records process that would undermine the law.
The dispute with UK is not the first high-profile case of Beshear’s first year in office. The Democrat also is challenging Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s orders to replace members of some state boards and commissions.