University claims student newspaper caused drop in sex-assault reports

University of Kentucky officials claim in new court filings that stories in its student newspaper about alleged sexual harassment and assault by an associate professor have made students afraid to report such assaults, a claim one journalism group called a “shameful manipulation.”

According to the court filing, 59 people reported some kind of sexual assault to UK’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Center between July and October 2015. This fall, the number had fallen to 38 as of Oct 26.

“Since publication of the Kernel’s articles, new students to the VIP Center have asked pointed questions regarding who will find out about their reports and specifically fear their story might appear in the paper,” Ashley Rouster, the intervention program coordinator at the VIP Center, said in an affidavit filed in court. “Based on my experience in this field, I believe the Kernel’s publication of articles related to this case has caused students to be reluctant to report incidents of interpersonal violence for fear of media attention.”

That surprises Kentucky Kernel Editor Marjorie Kirk, who wrote the stories about how James Harwood, an associate entomology professor who resigned from UK in February in the midst of a sexual harassment investigation against him, faced no disciplinary action by UK and was paid through August.

“I’ve seen the opposite effect,” Kirk said. “I’ve had more people come to me to tell their stories because they’re distrustful of the university and how it handles assault.”

It’s also not clear that the difference in yearly numbers can be attributed to a particular cause. There was a similar dip between fall 2013 and fall 2014, according to numbers that UK provided the Herald-Leader. From July to October 2013, the VIP center had 59 clients. In fall 2014, it had 31 clients, which is below the total for this fall. VIP director Rhonda Henry attributed the 2014 decline to a change in how UK handles complaints and said the center had only one victim advocate at the time.

And although the VIP Center reported 59 clients in fall 2013, it had only 67 for the entire 2013-14 school year, according to a 2015 story on sexual assault in the Herald-Leader. UK spokesman Jay Blanton said it’s not surprising that only eight students reported assault to the VIP center from November 2013 to the end of the school year, because there’s typically a surge of reporting in the fall, when students first come to school.

A national expert on journalism in higher education called the university’s legal filing a “shameful manipulation.”

“This may be a new low in terms of playing on the public’s empathy for survivors of sexual violence,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. “To try to manipulate that empathy to score legal points is beyond the pale, but evidently nothing is beyond the pale for this university.”

On Thursday afternoon, UK President Eli Capilouto issued a lengthy campus-wide email explaining the university’s position.

“We believe strongly that only the victim-survivor should have the ability to tell her or his story — and do so at a time and in a way they determine to be healthy and beneficial for their recovery and healing,” Capilouto said. “No one else has that right — not the media and certainly not anyone who simply has the time to file an open records request.”

The university is suing the Kentucky Kernel in Fayette Circuit Court in an attempt to block the release of its investigative files on Harwood, although the Kernel already has published many details from the investigative files after obtaining them from another source. The Kernel didn’t identify any of the victims, some of whom said they thought the university was protecting Harwood at their expense.

UK also refused to allow Attorney General Andy Beshear to examine the documents to see what details could be redacted under the Kentucky Open Records Act. Beshear’s office said UK violated the law by refusing to release the documents to the Kernel. UK then sued the Kernel and asked a Fayette Circuit Court judge to overturn Beshear’s ruling.

In UK’s latest legal filing, lawyers said that even releasing non-identifying details about the alleged harassment and assault would violate student privacy laws and allow “skillful Googlers” to somehow find the victims’ names.

“Unfortunately, the attorney general has failed to recognize the clear mandate of federal law, the realities of the Internet age, and the pain caused by the gratuitous and unnecessary disclosure of intimate details,” the brief says.

UK would not allow Rouster, the intervention program coordinator, to speak with the Herald-Leader because of the litigation. But they did allow her to speak to the board of trustees on Oct. 21, when she told them of a “challenging” year so far, exacerbated by the “chilling effect” of newspaper coverage. At a September board meeting, Capilouto condemned the Kernel’s coverage and produced letters from other victims saying they were worried about the publicity.

The Kernel’s attorney, Tom Miller, called the new brief and affidavit “a tactic to try to deflect the point away from the real dispute in the case” over open records.

LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center was more pointed, accusing UK of “trying to hide its own behavior.”

“No one is fooled, and I can’t imagine a judge will be either,” he said.

The Kernel and other news media are not asking the university to identify victims, LoMonte said.

“If people on the UK campus think their names will end up in the newspaper, it’s because of President Capilouto’s disinformation campaign,” he said. “He’s the only one who has been saying the newspaper will publish students’ records when he knows it to be false.”

Nationally, news reports on campus sexual assaults have helped to vastly increase reporting in recent years, not depress it, LoMonte said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of reports of campus sexual assaults doubled between 2001 and 2013, even as other campus violence declined. Many experts link the increased reporting to national attention, including a White House campaign that led to new rules to address the problem.

Beshear spokesman Terry Sebastian said UK’s latest legal move showed that its “leadership is willing to misrepresent the facts in order to justify its actions.”

“Our office asked only for a legally confidential review of documents redacted to protect victims and their identities,” Sebastian said. “UK’s attempt to pivot and claim the AG’s office does not care about victims is blatantly wrong and academically dishonest. Our office fights for victims every day and would never release a name or any identifying information of a victim.”

Gretchen Hunt runs the Attorney General’s Office of Victims Advocacy and is a longtime legal advocate for sexual assault survivors.

“We want to make it very clear that there’s a public interest in knowing what happens in sexual assault cases,” Hunt said. “Transparency is good to make sure the process is fair and that survivors’ rights are protected and assailants are held accountable.”

Everybody involved should be careful when they try to speak on behalf of survivors or make “sweeping comments about protecting victims,” Hunt said. “Many survivors are very interested in transparency in campus sexual assault so we can better understand what’s happening and what we can do to prevent it.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford