LSU faces legal battle in open records suit
Published: Friday, September 13, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 13, 2013 17:09
Louisiana State University’s adamant refusal to hand over presidential search records has landed its Board of Supervisors in hot water with the Louisiana Supreme Court., according to The Associated Press.
The university was found in contempt of court on Aug. 14 by state District Judge Janice Clark for failing to release information about the candidates considered in the school’s confidential presidential search. They are being fined $500 a day for every day they have failed to produce the records since April 30.
With contempt of court fines adding up to around $60,000 and the recent involvement of the Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Department ordered by Clark, people affiliated with the university are starting to speak out.
“I personally think that LSU is obligated to release the list of presidential candidates,” Jiana Wyche, nutrition and food sciences junior at LSU, said. “As an LSU student and a Louisiana citizen, I assumed that I would have access to these public records.”
Former Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Reveille Andrea Gallo filed the original lawsuit against the university’s governing board in spring 2013. NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune and The Advocate later joined forces in a combined suit and also demanded access to the documents.
This suit has been something LSU’s newspaper, The Daily Reveille, has been covering with vigor, not only because they were obligated to do so, but also because of Gallo’s involvement.
“It’s not everyday your boss sues the university and turns your whole view of journalism upside down,” said Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez, a staff writer at The Reveille. “The Daily Reveille prides itself with informing its readers with truth. It’s not our job to make the university look good or bad — it’s to tell the truth.”
Although Gallo subsequently lost her case against the university with state District Judge Tim Kelley, she still has high hopes that NOLA.com | The Times Picayune and The Advocate will emerge victorious in their ongoing case with Judge Clark.
“The way things have ended up is really surprising,” Gallo said. “We fought from the beginning, but I had no idea it would go this far. There’s even talk of imprisonment.”
Gallo said that these public records suits are some of the first the court has seen and that she doesn’t think Louisiana’s open records law will aid LSU’s current attempts at compromise with the state.
Loyola law professor Maria Medina said that as a state-run school, the university is subject to Louisiana’s open records law, and it is something that often helps the public gain a better understanding of what’s going on.
“As a matter of law and policy, Louisiana has a fairly strong open records law,” Medina said. “Generally, the state’s policy and legal posture has been to favor transparency in government and make it fairly easy for individuals and media entities to have access to public records, including the public records of a university.”
This open records law is what ultimately led Clark to order the release of the records and declare that LSU’s Board of Supervisors was in contempt of court. On Sept. 10, Clark implemented the involvement of the Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Department because of the university’s failure to comply.
“To be found to be in contempt of court means that you have willfully refused to obey or comply with an order of the court, and you can be sanctioned with fees or even a term of imprisonment,” Medina said.
The fact that the university has managed to accumulate more than $60,000 in fines since April because of this contempt of court charge is what ultimately bothers Wyche.
“I would like to know how they’ll be paying for this,” Wyche said. “Are they going to raise tuition, raise student ticket prices, cut back programs?”
Wyche isn’t the only one that is skeptical of the board’s actions. According to Zamudio-Suarez, both faculty and students at the university have expressed distrust in the way things are being handled.
“The Faculty Senate President, Kevin Cope, has been very outspoken about this issue, reminding the Board of Supervisors that he believes what they are doing is wrong,” Zamudio-Suarez said. “As for students, we get the most mixed opinions from them. Some understand the situation and are very opinionated, while others don’t care for news about the administration.”
While it seems to be a rather rocky start to a new school year for the administration, it has proven to be an exciting one for Zamudio-Suarez at The Daily Reveille.
“I started at The Reveille last semester, and I was staffing the politics beat. When I heard Gallo was suing the school, I didn’t know what to think. I still have the email she sent us to come to court,” Zamudio-Suarez said. “It seemed unreal to me that a 21-year-old girl was suing this great power and economic force in our state. This fight for the records proves she is one of the bravest young faces of journalism today.”
The case against LSU’s Board of Supervisors is ongoing, as the documents remain confidential.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Nia Porter can be reached at email@example.com