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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Update on former students’ lawsuit against university

More details about the Whatcom County Superior Court decision and Western’s response

A photo of Old Main in the Fall of 2019 with students walking past. The Financial Aid Office is located in Old Main but has gone remote due to the coronavirus.
A photo of Old Main in the Fall of 2019 with students walking past. The Financial Aid Office is located in Old Main but has gone remote due to the coronavirus.

By Mallory Biggar

On Oct. 22, a Whatcom County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of three former Western Washington University students, stating that the intervenors in the case did not provide sufficient evidence that their names are exempt from the Washington State Public Records Act.

In this case, the intervenors are current or former Western students whose names would be released if the university is required by law to do so. The intervenors are listed as John/Jane Does 1-7. 

Asia Fields, Erasmus Baxter and Julia Furukawa, with the help of the Student Press Law Center and attorney William Crittenden, filed the lawsuit in May 2019 as individual journalists unaffiliated with any organization.

According to an official statement from Western’s Director of Communications Paul Cocke, the university decided to release these records. 

“Over a year ago, Western decided upon [the] release of these records,” the statement said. “However, the intervenors, as is their legal right, have requested the records not be released. We will await any appeals of this recent court order.”

The official court order stated that the university cannot release the unredacted records containing the names of the intervenors for 30 days from the Oct. 22 ruling, giving them the opportunity to appeal.

Crittenden, the attorney representing plaintiffs and former Western students Fields, Baxter and Furukawa, said he could not comprehend the university’s behavior or strategy.

Crittenden said the university first cited federal exemptions for denying the request, but when that failed, they attempted to cite state exemptions which they had specifically argued against.

 “It turned out that they knew they were wrong, and they were sending out notices to the students on the list that they needed to get an injunction to stop these from being released to the requesters,” Crittenden said. “So, Western has been extremely two-faced. They just didn’t want to give this information out when really they were wrong.”

Although the court has ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, the legal battle is not over yet. If one or more of the intervenors file an appeal, then a new, lengthy legal process begins, Crittenden said. 

“[We’ve made] a lot of progress, but now the Washington appellate courts need to chime in,” Crittenden said.

Erasmus Baxter, who is now a staff writer for the Phoenix New Times, said that although the process has gone on for over a year and isn’t over yet, the plaintiffs plan on seeing the lawsuit through to the end. 

“The reason we want to keep this up is because we don’t think people should be able to escape scrutiny just because they have the money to hire an expensive attorney from Seattle,” he said. “That’s why we’re gonna see this to the end.”

The court’s ruling has given Baxter hope for the future of the case and has reassured what he said he already knew.

“I think this is definitely gonna be a fight the whole way,” he said. “But I think it affirms what we knew in the first place, which is that these are records that are explicitly allowed to be released under FERPA and required to be released under the Public Records Act, and that we have a right to them. That’s what we’ve been literally telling the university since day one.”

Asia Fields, a former journalism student and now staff reporter for the Seattle Times, said it is important to obtain these records because there is public interest in the information they contain and how the university handles misconduct.

“The fact that the university is not being transparent is definitely concerning and makes it so members of the campus community don’t know what’s going on on campus,” Fields said. “[The university] can hide what could potentially be a pattern of conduct.”

This lawsuit specifically regards the names of certain students or former students, but Fields said the impact of obtaining these records goes far beyond that.

“It’s not so much that we really want these specific individuals’ names,” she said. “It’s never really been about that. It’s been about wanting to get all of these records that we think are public so we can see what the university has been deciding in these cases.”

Julia Furukawa, one of the three plaintiffs, as well as either attorney representing the intervenors could not be reached for comment before deadline.

First story here.



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