Wyoming media prevail in university president records case

January 4, 2020 GMT

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — A group of Wyoming news organizations has largely prevailed in a lawsuit over records related to the dismissal of a university president.

The vast majority of the records sought by the Casper Star-Tribune, WyoFile and others will be released, albeit with some redactions to protect sensitive personal information, Albany County District Judge Tori Kricken wrote in a 55-page ruling Friday.

Kricken ordered 18 documents withheld in full because they met an attorney-client privilege exception.

“There is a well-known expression applied to those in public office, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, you’d better stay out of the kitchen,’” Kricken wrote, quoting another court case.

University of Wyoming trustees decided last year to not renew President Laurie Nichols’ contract. They have not explained their decision, which took Nichols and many others at the school by surprise.

The university made sweeping use of attorney-client privilege to avoid disclosing communications among trustees, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.

But the inclusion of university general counsel Tara Evans on communications with board members does not “automatically make the communication privileged,” Kricken wrote, ordering most of those records be released.

The judge also ruled in favor of the organizations’ request for a log of withheld documents detailing why they couldn’t be released. The university had refused to provide such a log.

Cheyenne-based attorney Bruce Moats, who represented the news organizations, called the ruling “a victory for the public.”

“It’s not a victory for these news organizations really because what makes what they do valuable is that they make this information available to the public so the public can evaluate by themselves,” he said.

The judge ruled against the news organizations on the question of whether fees charged by the university to produce records were reasonable. The university charged more than $700 for a Star-Tribune request made in the spring.

The Star-Tribune, WyoFile, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and the Laramie Boomerang filed the lawsuit in June. Nichols intervened in the lawsuit, largely agreeing that the records should be withheld.

Messages sent to Nichols’ attorney and the university’s attorney were not immediately returned Friday. Nichols was recently announced as the new president of Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.

While the exact content of the documents is unclear, previous court filings suggest they pertain to an investigation into Nichols.