Hard Times for The Herald: Western Kentucky University Could Take its Student Paper to Court

The College Heights Herald, Western Kentucky University’s student newspaper, is expecting a lawsuit any day now. But here’s the twist: the expected suit is coming from the university itself.

The suit would mark the second time in recent history that a Kentucky university sued its own student newspaper. The preceding case, a highly-contested battle between the University of Kentucky and its student paper, The Kentucky Kernel, concerned the opening of Title IX documents. In that case, the University won the suit.

The suit, while not yet officially filed with the state Attorney General, comes after months of legal disputes between The Herald and WKU stemming from disagreements over open records requests.

In November, the Herald began investigating the school’s handling of Title IX investigations and requested university documents through the Freedom of Information Act.

“We were interested in looking at how the university exactly handles Title IX investigations, and more specifically violations of Title IX policies, so we requested the documents pertaining to Title IX violations from faculty and staff of WKU,” said Shay Harney, the Herald’s editor-in-chief.

The Herald found that over the last four years, six WKU employees have resigned as a result of ongoing Title IX investigations. However, because these employees resigned before the completion of the investigation, the pertinent documents were labeled by the university as preliminary in action, and thus not applicable to be publicized under open records laws.

Citing the then-ongoing litigation between the University of Kentucky and its own student newspaper that could have bearing on the case, WKU denied the Herald’s initial records request, as well as a second request filed after the first rejection.

After the second denial, the Herald filed an appeal with the Kentucky Attorney General. His decision, which came in January, stated that WKU had violated open records laws by withholding the documents. The University, however, decided to appeal the decision, and on February 6th, announced that they would be moving forward with a lawsuit against the Herald. According to the Herald’s story on the subject, WKU President Gary Ransdell stated that the decision to appeal was based on a responsibility to “stakeholders,” and the lawsuit isn’t personal.

“It’s important for people to know this is about us sorting through the most responsible way to handle sexual assault on campus, not the way this administration or university feels about its College Heights Herald,” Ransdell said.

According to Harney, the suit didn’t exactly come as a surprise to the staff, who had been inspired to begin their investigation after learning about the lawsuit brewing at the University of Kentucky.

“We had kind of figured that the Kentucky Kernel’s ongoing lawsuit would affect [WKU’s] decision to give us the records. But it turns out that it did in a negative way,” Harney said.

While neither school is suing either paper for damages, the suit puts WKU in an awkward position of suing its own source of campus news. The Herald is a semi-independent publication and relies primarily on ad sales for revenue and covering operating costs. The university only provides office space, and pays the salary of the professional university publication staff.

Though the lawsuit seems harsh, Harney doesn’t believe it will continue to impact the paper’s relationship with the university. “We’ve always valued our relationship with the administration here at WKU, so I don’t foresee this being any sort of contentious issue,” she clarified.

Harney feels confident in the face of the lawsuit, thanks in part to the campus community. “At least from the reaction I’ve seen on social media, more people are in support of the Herald and our pursuit of transparency and accountability,” Harney told MediaFile. Not to mention, Harney says, the WKU alumni base is loyal – and defensive. “Any time the university has ever tried to threaten the Herald and what we do here, we have enough loyal alumni to hold that and to make sure that does not happen.”

So, with an impending lawsuit and potential other legal difficulties for the Herald in days to come, the paper is in for a rocky judicial road ahead. But, when it comes to the court of public opinion, the ruling – and the support of the campus community – is in the students’ favor.

Lauren Shiplett contributed reporting.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the Herald Editor-in-Chief’s last name to “Harney” instead of “Harvey” as previously reported.

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