LARAMIE — An Albany County district judge is expected to review documents this week related to the departure of former University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols, potentially bringing a resolution to a public records lawsuit filed several months ago by several Wyoming news organizations.
Stemming from a joint lawsuit against the university filed by the Star-Tribune, WyoFile, the Laramie Boomerang and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Tuesday’s hearing marks the culmination of several months of inquiry following Nichols’ surprising demotion in March. With that decision mired in secrecy, the news organizations have filed public records requests seeking documents from the university. UW has resisted many of those requests, citing privacy concerns among other things.
In the case’s initial hearing Tuesday morning in Laramie, District Judge Tori A. Kricken set a Friday deadline for the university to hand over documents related to Nichols’ departure for her review, after which she could decide to release them to the public.
That decision is contingent on a number of factors, including whether withholding some of the records conflicts with the public’s right to know the causes behind a public figure’s non-renewed contract, or whether the release of the records constitutes an invasion of Nichols’ privacy that would override that right.
Privileged info or public interest?
What qualifies as privileged information in the case — and what does not — remains up for debate.
While Wyoming’s public records statutes have a number of strong stipulations to protect the privacy of individuals’ personal lives, the media outlets involved in the case believe Nichols’ exit from the state’s sole four-year public college and the involvement of taxpayer dollars creates a compelling public interest, making the privacy protections in Wyoming’s laws moot.
Furthermore, the definition of what fits the definition of a personnel file considered to be privileged information under Wyoming’s public records law is already vague, with the plaintiff’s attorney, Bruce Moats, arguing that documents confirming something like an investigation would likely not fit the mold.
While disciplinary records, he allowed, would be exempt under Wyoming’s statutes, Moats added, the fact that the entire state already knows what happened to Nichols likely makes this an irrelevant point. On Sept. 27, the Casper Star-Tribune and WyoFile published a joint investigation revealing that the university’s board of trustees had quietly investigated Nichols prior to the decision, making the details of what was investigated — and what was found — less a personnel issue than a piece of information necessary for the public’s understanding of the case, Moats argued.
Simply put, Wyoming knows what happened. Now, they just want to know why — something he said is likely not covered under the personnel protections written into the state’s public records law.
“If there are investigative records, it is not an invasion of privacy to ask why this happened,” Moats said.
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What could be released?
After Kricken reviews the documents, the judge could then make a ruling that the university release some or all of the documents requested by the media outlets with some redactions. These include any records “related to the review or investigation of President Laurie Nichols’ behavior, conduct or interactions with UW and outside individuals,” as well as a copy of any contract with any firm or investigator brought in to perform the review.
Some of the records released may not contain direct answers to Nichols’ departure from the university, but some could provide significant information.
One question mark in the case is the release of something called a “privilege log,” a document outlining what records were withheld by a public entity and for what purpose. With the release of the privilege log, the requester — in this case, the news organization — could confirm a number of facts related to Nichols’ exit from the university, including whether she was investigated or if there was a meeting held to discuss the non-renewal of her contract.
An attorney for the university, Rob Jarosh, argued that there was no cause for the university to produce such a log, arguing that the petitioner’s intent was not to see whether personnel exemptions — i.e., withholding documents to protect the defendant’s privacy — applied. Rather, he argued, the petitioner sought “proof of something they think happened.”
“That is not the purpose of a privilege log,” Jarosh said.
However Moats — representing the media outlets — argued that the university’s refusal to produce a log once again comes down to whether the conditions of Nichols’ exit are deemed in the public’s interest, saying that leaving the public to “stumble around in the dark” for answers is ultimately in violation of the spirit of public records law.
The concept of public interest, however, can be intangible, if not arbitrary, and in evaluating public records requests, privacy concerns — as the Wyoming Legislature intended when writing the law, Jarosh argued — sometimes trump the need to make all the details public.
Jarosh, himself a former journalist, asked Kricken to keep that in mind.
“This is a public records case, nothing more,” he said during Tuesday’s hearing. “What the board of trustees may or may not have done is irrelevant to this case.”