To my decades old Central Kentucky sensibilities, and post-Covid agoraphobia, Murray Kentucky seems as remote as Siberia.
The simile is not altogether inapt. A deep freeze has descended on journalistic freedom in that "faraway place."
An unexpected friendship -- born of a shared commitment (some would say an uncompromising commitment) to defending Kentucky's open government laws -- with the news director at a local TV station in Paducah brought the university town closer to home.
In November 2022, WPSD Local 6's Perry Boxx forwarded to me a copy of Murray State University's partial denial of his request for records related to a potential WKMS story about a now infamous incident involving a local judge's after hours stroll through the courthouse in his underwear and the judge's attempts to use his influence with MSU officials -- including President Robert Jackson -- to “kill" the embarrassing story.
The judge's strong arm tactics were clearly improper. The arguments advanced by MSU in support of the partial denial of Boxx's open records request were absurd.
Murray State University -- which holds the license on the public radio affiliate, WKMS -- denied Boxx's open records request "to the extent documents contain exempt information the disclosure of which would impinge or inhibit the freedom of the press - pursuant to KRS 61.878(1)(k)."
"The First Amendment as the enemy of the public’s right to know," we posited not long after Boxx shared the denial with us, "who could have imagined?"
WPSD's ensuing legal battle for access to undisclosed public records relating to this incident -- and other incidents in which state and local elected officials exerted influence to undermine serious investigative journalism at WKMS
-- compounded the university's discomfiture and landed it in a public relations maelstrom.
This, along with WPSD's reports on other university efforts to reign in WKMS -- by threats, intimidation, obstructionism, and budget reductions -- paint a grim picture.
Now comes news of an organizational shake-up and budget cuts at Murray State's student newspaper, The News.
In a staff opinion published on May 11, The News objects to the “reimagining” — let’s call it what it is — the reorganization of "the student-run newspaper that compromise[s] our policy of having a free campus press without University interference by which The News stands. These changes come after The News received a proposed $23,614 funding cut from the University."
The News staff expresses concern that the removal of its current news advisor, and her replacement with "three journalism and mass communications department faculty members" -- administrative decisions from which the newspaper was excluded in contrast to past decision making -- "would let the University control and interfere with The News to an unprecedented extent, violating what we have learned about free press. . . ."
The staff opinion continues:
"This proposed change targets the fundamentals of The News by eliminating vital reporting on important issues affecting the campus community. It will make reporting on campus issues a subsection of The News, while student assignments from journalism classes take precedence."
Perhaps it's time The News file its own open records requests to the university records custodian for university public records related to the changes in the newspaper's organizational structure -- complaints that might have prompted the changes, records identifying concerns about and/or objections to the newspaper's reporting, the decision to remove the current news advisor -- as well as notification to the current news advisor of her removal and notification to the three new advisors of their appointment; any alternatives to the student newspaper reorganization that were considered, and the timing of the reorganization at the conclusion of the school year (and immediately after the re-accreditation of the university’s journalism and mass communications program).
The student journalists have returned home for the summer, some have graduated, and the presses are silent for now. But an open records request requires minimal effort — something the students have learned in their studies.
Like WPSD, The News should hold Murray State University’s bureaucratic feet to the fire by requesting public records relating to the “reimagination” of its organizational structure — if for no other reason than to see how the university tries to extricate itself from the flames.