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MULVIHILL: The danger of suing student newspapers

The University of Kentucky should drop charges against The Kentucky Kernel

On Aug. 8, Eli Capilouto, president of the University of Kentucky, announced the school’s decision to sue its student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel. The Kernel’s plan to publish documents related to the investigation and subsequent charging of Associate Entomology Prof. James Harwood in the sexual assault of two female students prompted the lawsuit. The Kernel won the right to see the documents by appealing to the Kentucky Attorney General's office, but the university says the documents should be kept private in order to protect victims’ rights. However, the Kernel had planned to publish the documents with all identifying information redacted to protect the privacy of the complainants. Given this, the university should drop its lawsuit — which would have negative implications for upholding the First Amendment for student newspapers everywhere.

There were no privacy issues related to the case because the Kernel intended to publish the information from the documents with the victims’ information redacted. The paper planned to keep the names and identifying characteristics of the women out of the story, which would keep the focus on Harwood’s actions and the university’s methods for handling the situation. It’s also worth noting the complainants do not support the lawsuit. Buzzfeed News reports that the two women were “surprised and outraged” that the school planned to sue in order to block the release of the documents. The women stated, “We care most about preventing Harwood from leaving for another university where he could repeat these behaviors.” The Kentucky Kernel also reported the victims think the university is trying to protect the former professor over its students.

The lawsuit brings up important questions regarding the relationships between universities and university publications. In the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the nation’s highest court ruled that high schools can control what school papers publish because they sponsor and fund the papers. The lawsuit brought by the University of Kentucky against the Kentucky Kernel has stronger, different First Amendment implications. The Kernel is independent of the University of Kentucky, so, unlike newspapers that receive funding from their university counterparts, the university has no right to police what can and cannot be published. For this reason, the university’s lawsuit could be seen as a First Amendment violation because it is using its considerable resources to prevent an independent newspaper from publishing information that it doesn’t want released.

One of the key roles of journalists and newspapers everywhere is to provide high-quality coverage, and student newspapers cannot do that if they have to fight their universities financially. The rise of the Internet has led to a considerable decrease in profits for print newspapers all around the world, and student newspapers often barely break even. The University of Kentucky, on the other hand, has a $1.143 billion endowment. Though I, like many other student journalists, would like to think that The Cavalier Daily or any other student newspaper could fight against a university and win, the reality is, without strong alumni support, continued lawyer’s fees would likely bankrupt us. If freedom of the press becomes a money war, small, student-run organizations will always lose out and coverage will suffer because of it. Every university publication strives to serve its community and college campuses would look very different without the important information provided daily by students. Legal actions like that between the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Kernel has the potential to set a negative precedent. If a university does not want information published by its student newspaper, they can just sue them and use the lengthy proceedings to force the story into irrelevancy. This strategy would ruin student journalism and all campuses, especially those like the University of Kentucky and the University of Virginia active student newspapers, would suffer.

Carly Mulvihill is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at c.mulvihill@cavalierdaily.com.

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