An Albany County District Court judge today ordered the University of Wyoming to present for her private review contested documents regarding former university President Laurie Nichols, who was demoted without explanation.
Judge Tori Kricken on July 16, ordered UW’s lawyers to provide “documents to the Court” by Aug. 15 for her review, along with further legal arguments as to why the records should be kept secret. She set a hearing for Oct. 8.
The order is the latest development in a public records lawsuit filed by WyoFile, Lee Publications, Inc. and APG Media of the Rockies, LLC, and follows the University’s response last week to the news coalition’s petition. Lee publishes the Casper-Star Tribune and APG publishes the Laramie Boomerang and Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
The university declined to provide the requesting news organizations with documents believed to be related to the board of trustees’ decision not to renew Nichols’ contract and has maintained that such records are not public, positions UW lawyers reiterated in last week’s filing.
The judge will review the records in question and take arguments from both sides on whether they are or are not public, said Bruce Moats, attorney for the news organizations.
In their July 11 response lawyers representing UW from the Cheyenne firm Hirst Applegate contested the news organizations’ assertions that requested records are in the public interest. The June 21 press petition sought records of an evaluation they believe was conducted into Nichols performance and records of any investigations conducted into the president’s leadership or behavior.
The press petition with the court alleges that “upon information and belief, the University hired a third party to investigate President Nichols in response to a complaint.”
In her response to the initial records request by a Casper Star-Tribune reporter, UW general counsel Tara Evans denied the request without acknowledging such an investigation existed. In the July 11 response to the press petition, UW’s lawyers suggested records of an internal investigation “may” exist.
“Some of the documents” that were withheld may fall under an exemption for internal investigations, the university’s lawyers wrote. In its original response to the Casper Star’s records request, the university withheld many records under an exemption for personnel files.
The lawsuit challenged UW’s use of the “personnel files” exemption to deny release of any records of investigations into Nichols. The exemption only protects records where publicity would constitute a “clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy,” the press filing argued.
“Public access to an investigation into the conduct or performance of the leader of the state’s only university is clearly a matter in which the public has a legitimate interest,” the petition reads. “Therefore, the exemption does not prevent public access to any investigative report or related documents.”
In its response, UW argued it wasn’t clear there was a public interest in Nichols’ performance as president of the state’s only public four-year university. UW has “insufficient knowledge regarding the public’s interest in the University president’s performance,” the university’s lawyers wrote.
The public interest in this case was clear, press lawyer Moats said in an interview. “I don’t think there is any doubt that there’s a great public interest in the university’s performance,” Moats said, “as well as in the performance of the university’s governors and how they handled the [Nichols] situation.”
The university’s governors are the board of trustees, who voted in an executive session not to renew Nichols’ contract and have yet to offer any public explanation for the decision.
UW’s lawyers argued that because the school did not terminate Nichols — it simply did not renew her contract — there is no need to offer an explanation. “Reasons for not extending the contract were not necessary,” they wrote.
The judge will use the private review of the records to determine whether the records invade Nichols’ personal privacy to an extent that outweighs the public’s interest in seeing their contents, Moats said.
“The [Wyoming] Supreme Court has said that what really matters in these cases is whether it’s an unwarranted invasion of privacy,” Moats said. Unwarranted would suggest “personnel facts with which the public does not have legitimate interests,” he said.
WyoFile did not receive a response from a University of Wyoming spokesperson to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.