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MSU and WPSD respond to motion for fees and penalties

MURRAY – Murray State University Board of Regents Chairman Leon Owens released a statement after Friday’s quarterly board meeting in response to a motion for attorneys’ fees and statutory penalties WPSD-TV filed Monday in its lawsuit against the university, marking the first time a Murray State official has publicly commented on the case.

The university has largely remained mum regarding the dispute, which centers around two open records requests the Paducah television station submitted to the university in the fall of 2022 after allegations surfaced amidst highly-publicized misconduct proceedings against a former local circuit judge that administrators attempted to interfere with reporting by MSU’s NPR-affiliate radio station WKMS-FM.   

WPSD appealed MSU’s response to its first request to the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General (OAG). The station largely prevailed in the OAG decision, and MSU produced more heavily-redacted records. Shortly thereafter, WPSD filed suit in Calloway Circuit Court against the university to compel the release of records related to “MSU’s attempts to interfere with reporting by WKMS.”

The university declined to comment on the lawsuit when it was filed in March 2023, but it did release a statement related to WKMS.  

“The university has provided consistent financial support to WKMS for many years including during the pandemic,” the statement read, in part. “This financial support, future work and new leadership for WKMS allows us to fully pursue WKMS’ vision which is as follows: ‘WKMS is a beacon for growing regional culture as a part of Murray State University’s public service investment in our communities through thoughtful journalism, conversation, music and arts.’”

On subsequent filings, MSU has declined to comment. Although, after Calloway Circuit Special Judge John Atkins issued his summary judgment in favor of WPSD last month, ruling that MSU willfully violated the Kentucky Open Records Act, the university did release a brief statement that said it respected the court’s decision and reiterated its commitment to student success and academic excellence. 

When asked for comment on WPSD’s motion for sanctions in excess of $415,000, the university returned to declining to comment on pending litigation. 

Friday’s meeting concluded with a closed session to discuss “pending litigation against or on behalf of” the university, which lasted an hour and 20 minutes. Whether the lawsuit against WPSD specifically was discussed is not known, but shortly after the meeting adjourned, MSU released Owens’ statement.

“In the fall of 2022, Murray State University responded to several expansive requests for records from WPSD,” Owens wrote. “The University worked cordially with WPSD and their counsel throughout this process and spent hundreds of hours and significant resources compiling documents. Unfortunately, the University’s good faith efforts, which resulted in the disclosure of more than 1,000 pages to WPSD, were met with a lawsuit. 

“Prior to the Court’s February 16, 2024 ruling, WPSD had already received hundreds of pages of records from the University, many of which were featured in WPSD’s news stories. Despite its good faith belief about the applicability of three very narrow Open Records Act exemptions, which the University applied to a very limited number of records, the University promptly provided WPSD with revised records upon receipt of the Court’s Order.”

Likewise, documents filed Monday indicate MSU produced those records within two business days of the judgment’s entry.  

“The University is eager to respond to WPSD’s motion for fees and costs promptly through proper channels in this litigation,” Owens continued. “The University has taken no actions in willful disregard of the law with respect to WPSD’s requests. As such, WPSD is not entitled to fees and penalties under the Act, let alone fees and penalties in the egregious amount sought. The University has fulfilled numerous requests for open records, in accordance with the Act and without dispute on a near-daily basis, and it takes its responsibility in this area very seriously.”

A search of the OAG open records decisions revealed that, since 1993, five open records appeals have been filed against MSU, which comprises 19% of all appeals filed against public agencies in Murray and Calloway County. The only agency with more appeals during that time period is the Calloway Circuit Clerk with seven appeals, the majority of which occurred between 1997 and 2003. 

Two of those appeals were from individuals seeking records about themselves (10-ORD-089 and 14-ORD-002), and three were from media outlets – the Kentucky New Era, seeking records related to the construction of the Regional Postsecondary Education Center in Hopkinsville (02-ORD-13); the Louisville Courier-Journal, seeking records related to the 1998 death of Michael Minger, a student who died in a fire in Hester Hall (04-ORD-030); and WPSD (23-ORD-024).

“After months of unnecessary, unjustified, protracted litigation, and hundreds of hours spent producing thousands of pages of records at a tremendous cost to the University,” Owens wrote in conclusion, “administrators, faculty and staff look forward to returning all of their energy, efforts and resources to their students, and the amazing teaching and learning that occurs at Murray State University.”

On Tuesday, WPSD News Director Perry Boxx released a statement about the motion for fees and penalties, echoing the assertions Atkins made in his succinct February ruling and drawing particular attention to the judge’s own characterization of MSU’s actions as a “scheme.” 

“Judge Atkins’ order described the actions of the University under the leadership of President Bob Jackson, a former state senator, as a ‘near categorical redaction scheme at ‘odds with existing law,’’” Boxx wrote on Tuesday. “A ‘scheme.’”

“The judge’s order specifically ‘adopts’ the arguments our attorneys made about the behavior of Jackson’s administration,” he continued. “A university is supposed to be a center of learning, a place where truth and knowledge are valued, a beacon of light in darkness.” 

Boxx called MSU’s response to WPSD’s open records requests “the most arrogant, cynical and contemptuous of the people’s right to know” he has ever personally seen from a public agency in his 44 years of managing news operations.

“It was an unprincipled, indefensible, egregious and unconscionable attempt to shield remarkably bad behavior,” he added. 

Boxx pointed out that, as WPSD’s “reporting unfolded,” Western Kentucky University’s Board of Regents adopted an editorial integrity policy for its NPR-affiliate station, WKU Public Radio. 

According to reporting from WKU Public Radio on the August board meeting when regents adopted the policy, WKU President Timothy Caboni “said it is important for the board to publicly validate its support for the editorial independence of public media.”

“As president,” Caboni told WKU after the meeting, “what I want everyone to understand is that it also has complete autonomy to ask any questions it wants to ask, pursue any stories it wants to pursue, without any interference from the institution, its leadership, or its PR program.”

In his statement, Boxx noted that such an act is “something that Jackson and the Board of Regents at Murray (State) have so far been content to ignore.” 

Due to a scheduling conflict, WPSD’s motion for attorneys’ fees and statutory penalties, which was previously scheduled for hearing next week, will now be heard on Thursday, March 28, at 1:30 p.m. at the Christian County Justice Center. 

Editor’s note: This story was written without input or review from our Board of Directors.

Sentinel Staff

Jessica Paine
I’m Jessica Paine, founder of The Murray Sentinel. You may know me from my time as a citizen journalist, running the Calloway Covid-19 Count page on Facebook, or you may be familiar with my more recent work for another local news outlet. Being that I’m “from here,” you may have known me since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper,” although you knew me as Jessica Jones. But whether you know me or not, I’m glad you found your way here.

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