A court in Wyoming sided with a group of newspapers last week, affirming the public’s right to know over individual privacy. The ruling will make records involving the dismissal of former University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols public, unless UW appeals the decision.
Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken ruled Jan. 3 the majority of records sought by the Casper Star-Tribune and other media outlets should be made public.
"I think it’s a win for the public because the public is going to get access to these records. The judge said she was not going to release them until there had been an opportunity for appeal by the University," said Dale Bohren, publisher for the Casper Star-Tribune.
Chad Baldwin, spokesperson for the University of Wyoming, says the University Board of Trustees is still reviewing the decision but will likely appeal the ruling.
"The feeling of the board is that by law these are records that fall under exemptions to the public records law," Baldwin said.
UW argued in court the records fall under personnel files, which are private under state public records laws.
Legal representation for the news outlets argued that Nichols is a public figure as university president. They also argued that because UW, Wyoming's flagship University, receives a significant amount of public funding from Wyoming taxpayers, the records requested by the Casper Star-Tribune should be public.
Nichols has sided with the University in the case. She recently took a job as president of Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.
The Casper Star-Tribune began seeking records when UW allowed Nichols’ contract as president to expire over the summer.
Bohren says most were surprised by the move.
"It’s a really big deal in Wyoming. And people love the University of Wyoming. It was really an enigma, why Laurie Nichols was not retained," he said.
When UW denied their requests for documents, the Casper Star-Tribune, WyoFile, The Laramie Boomerang and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle filed a joint lawsuit against the university based on Wyoming's public records law.
Bohren says there’s no animosity between the two parties in the lawsuit.
"They’re trying to serve the people of Wyoming the best they can and I understand that and I respect that," he said. "All we are doing is we are seeking clarity on how records are managed."
Lee Banville, a professor at the University of Montana’s Journalism School, says Friday’s ruling supports the public’s right to know over individual privacy.
"It’s really not about the journalists accessing it, it’s about the public's right to access that information," Banville said. "And the journalists are typically the people who are on the front lines of this question of what should be public, what should the public have the right to know."
Banville says while Montana law generally favors the public's right to know over individual privacy, Wyoming has historically placed more emphasis on an individual's right to privacy.
According to WyoFile, Judge Kricken said in a conference call with lawyers a log detailing withheld documents must be provided to the news outlets by Jan. 13. It’s unclear when the documents themselves will be released, if UW chooses not to appeal.