It’s been about 10 months since the University of Wyoming announced that Laurie Nichols, its then president, would be leaving her post. At the time, the university attempted to portray the decision – unconvincingly – as simply a job switch, from leader of Wyoming’s sole public university to a faculty member.
That story quickly broke down as the university community – and the president herself – expressed surprise with the decision. After all, Nichols was well respected, having guided the university through a difficult budgetary period. Most had expected her contract, which at the time was set to expire in a matter of months, would be renewed.
Instead, the first female president in the school’s history was out – and nobody knew why.
Or rather, the school’s trustees presumably had a reason for their decision, but they did not share it.
And over the ensuing months, they have remained resolute in their belief that the public should not know why the leader of arguably the most important institution in Wyoming was no longer the right person for the president’s job.
After the announcement, the Star-Tribune and other media organizations sought public records – in the form of emails and other documents – that would offer an explanation for Nichols’ departure.
But the university denied access to many of the documents, reasoning they are exempt from public disclosure.
Before we go any further, a little background on public records. Most of the time, when an employee writes an email, composes a memo or puts together a report, those documents are public. Those records belong to the citizens of Wyoming, who have a right to understand how their government functions and how their tax money is being spent.
That information is hardly academic. It’s the stuff that a citizenry needs to make informed decisions – an absolute necessity in a democratic society.
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There are exemptions to public records rules. For example, trade secrets, hospital records or an individual’s medical data are exempt from public review.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen a disturbing trend whereby government agencies aggressively cite exemptions in ways we consider unreasonable.
In this instance, the university contended a number of diverse documents couldn’t be released because due to an exemption related to personnel matter.
In response, the Star-Tribune, WyoFile, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and the Laramie Boomerang filed suit in state court seeking access to the records.
The lawsuit has been winding its way through the courts since the summer. Then last week, Albany Count District Judge Tori Kricken rightly, we think, concluded that the dismissal of a top official, one tasked with running a major government organization, is hardly a private matter. Put simply: The right of the public to understand a major change at the presidential level at its university outweighed any privacy interest of the individual serving in that position.
“Quite simply, public figures, especially those who, by nature of their position, are subject to increased scrutiny and notoriety … have a decreased interest in privacy,” Kricken wrote.
The case might be appealed, but Kricken’s decision is nevertheless of critical importance – not just because it could result in the public finally understand the circumstances of Nichols’ departure.
Rather, it sends a strong message to government officials across Wyoming that the public has a compelling interest – to use the judge’s words – in understanding the workings of our institutions. It rightly holds that those who have the most public responsibility should also receive the most scrutiny.
Our suit requesting clarity on this issue makes it clear that public leaders cannot operate behind the shield of a personnel file. That is good for the public, and we think it’s good for our public leaders, too.
Because what’s at stake is more than whatever caused the university trustees to decide that Nichols should no longer serve as president.
The public requires good information to participate in the democratic process. The custodians of our records would be wise to remember that.