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Western alumni awarded $111K in lawsuit against the university

Former journalism students sued Western for redacting the names of students found responsible for sexual misconduct and harassment

Image of a whiteboard outside of the courtroom at the Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham, Wash., from a hearing on April 4, 2024. The penalty was not decided on this day and the hearing was rescheduled for May. // Photo by Seddie LeBlanc

On May 2, a judge ruled that Western Washington University owes $111,780 in penalties to three former journalism students for withholding 27 public records from them for 276 days.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education investigated Western’s handling of reports of sexual violence because a student filed a Title IX complaint. 

In 2019, former Western journalism students Erasmus Baxter, Asia Fields and Julia Furukawa sued the school for refusing to release the names of students who were found responsible by the university for sexual misconduct and/or sexual harassment. 

The student journalists were writing a series on how Western handles sexual assault after the university readmitted a student who had been banned from campus after he was charged with raping another student. Western was investigated by the federal Department of Education in 2015 for its handling of sexual misconduct after a student filed a Title IX complaint.

“It was a culmination of a lot of the reporting we've been doing already on how the university was handling sexual misconduct and sexual assault cases, and also the result of the interest we are seeing from people on campus who were really caring about this issue,” Baxter said about requesting the public records. 

Western argued that the records were exempt under FERPA and the Washington State Public Records Act. The journalists sought help from Mike Hiestand, a lawyer from the Student Press Law Center. 

“We took all these steps just to try and get Western to realize they were in the wrong and to do the right thing … filing a lawsuit was a last resort,” Baxter said. 

On Dec. 27, 2021, the Court of Appeals decided that Western wrongfully withheld the records because the names were subject to disclosure and not exempt. The court concluded that the “public school student file” Public Records Act exemption did not apply, because it doesn’t apply to postsecondary educational institutions. 

It affirmed that FERPA allows for the final results of any disciplinary proceeding where the alleged student committed “any crime of violence” or a “nonforcible sex offense.”

Western filed an offer of judgment in October 2023, which included a request for “reasonable attorney’s fees,” citing a piece of state legislation called Court Rule 68, which enables the defendant in a civil trial to request the adverse party pay their court costs.

Western’s lawyer, Assistant Attorney General Julie Nicoll, declined to comment in person and over email.

“Western has so much more resources. They have so much more power … it illustrates the kind of situation that journalists in general and student journalists in particular deal with when you're trying to deal with the bureaucracy of Western or something like that,” Baxter said. 

Reporters for The Front began covering the case in December of that year after the journalism alumni’s attorney Bill Crittenden made a motion to strike Western’s request for reasonable attorney’s fees. The Whatcom County Superior Court did not rule on the motion prior to the penalty hearing on May 2.

Paul Mueller, Western’s Director of Risk Management, who attended the Dec. 7 hearing, declined to comment.

“This is an attack on journalism and I’m not going to stand for it,” Crittenden said in court when arguing against Western's motion for reasonable attorney’s fees.

Western’s University Policy and Public Records Director, Dolapo Akinrinade, declined to comment in court. 

“At this point, we're five years out, and we're still resolving the case. It's always sort of in your mind, and occasionally it comes up and you have to work on the case for a bit,” Fields said. “It can be somewhat stressful. But ultimately, I think we're really fortunate and we're looking forward to this resolving soon.”

Seddie LeBlanc

Seddie LeBlanc (they/she) is the opinions editor for The Front this quarter. They have previously reported and edited for the Campus News beat. Seddie is in their third year at Western studying journalism and minoring in Law, Diversity, and Justice. In her free time, Seddie enjoys being outside, cooking and going to house shows. You can reach them at

Jemma Alexander

Jemma Alexander (she/her) is a campus life reporter for The Front. She is a senior majoring in journalism new/ed and minoring in Arab American studies. When she's not doing homework, Jemma is likely working, talking loudly over movies with her roommates or dancing ’till she drops. You can reach her at

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