Student journalists Erasmus Baxter and Julia Furukawa held a press conference on May 30 explaining the lawsuit along with Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center. // Photo by Ray Garcia
Western journalism students have filed a lawsuit, with legal assistance from the Student Press Law Center, against the university for allegedly violating the Public Records Act.
Plaintiffs Erasmus Baxter and Julia Furukawa gave a press conference with Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, to an audience of broadcast stations and news outlets regarding the lawsuit on the Communications Facility Lawn Thursday, May 30.
Alumna Asia Fields, who could not attend the press conference, also filed the lawsuit. They are suing as individual journalists.
In 2017, then-editors Baxter and Fields, in collaboration with Caleb Huisingh, reported on a story that involved a student who was charged with a felony and then readmitted to Western, according to a previous Western Front article. One year later, Baxter and Fields reported on a similar case, according to a press release regarding the lawsuit.
After filing a public records request in order to investigate whether or not these circumstances were a trend, the university released the information with the names of the perpetrators redacted, Furukawa said during the press conference.
On May 6, William Crittenden, the lawyer representing the students, officially filed a complaint about violations of the Public Records Act, stating that Western is a state agency that is subject to comply with state and federal law.
“The point of getting these names is not vindictive,” Furukawa said during the press conference. “It’s to ensure that the systems intended to provide justice on campus are working correctly.”
When the students questioned university administration about the redactions, the administration responded by citing federal privacy law.
“Over the last two years, we’ve tried to convince Western to follow the law and release the names, but to no avail,” she said. “When we met with Vice President Melinda Huskey, we were told Western couldn’t release the names because the administration was afraid of being sued.”
When asked to comment on the issue, Western’s director of communications and marketing Paul Cocke said the university maintains the position that the redactions complied with the Washington State Public Records Act. The university would not comment further on the pending lawsuit, Cocke said in an email.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects access to student records, which are defined as records directly related to the student and maintained by an educational agency, according to Western’s Registrar’s Office. However, Heistand said police records are not considered education records, which are protected under FERPA.
According to Heistand, issues of violations of campus rules and campus academic standards are handled by the campus court system. Western’s Student Conduct Appeals Board reviews decisions that can lead to student suspension or expulsion, according to the university’s website.
“The public is often amazed to learn that these bodies now handle complaints involving conduct that would now be a felony, carrying significant prison time if they were pursued in the criminal justice system,” Heistand said.
Two years ago, when Baxter and Fields first filed the public records request, they thought the university had made a mistake in their handling of the records, Baxter said. However, the university refused to comply with their requests, after numerous filings, he said.
“Our position is that the university is making a mistake,” Baxter said. “They’re misinterpreting the law, and we want them to correct that.”
As for the future, Baxter said he feels this case is strong and the odds of winning are in their favor.
“The law seems to be very clearly on our side,” he said. “We’ve spoken to multiple lawyers who are experts in this area who agree. I feel confident that, at the very least, we’re going to hold Western accountable for any explanations they give for not releasing that information.”
The students’ hope is that the case will be resolved quickly, Baxter said during the press conference.
“Western’s making a choice,” he said. “Any day they can release those records, any day they could resolve this lawsuit. Every day they delay is more taxpayer money and more student money that’s going to cost them when they inevitably lose this lawsuit.”
This story was updated on June 9 to correct the positions of Fields and Baxter in spring 2017 from reporters to editors.