Western Kentucky University's public radio affiliate, WKYU-FM, reports that on August 11 the WKU Board of Regents "approved a Code of Editorial Integrity for Public Media . . . restating their support for editorial independence" at Western Kentucky University and "formally express[ing] support for public media, its value, and mission."
The university holds the license for WKU Public Radio and WKU PBS.
The action comes on the heels of developments in the Commonwealth suggesting a retreat from press freedom. WKYU producer Lisa Autry reports:
"In the state legislature earlier this year, the Senate passed a bill to disband the board for Kentucky Educational Television and require future gubernatorial appointments be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate."
In addition, Autry reports, Murray State University and its NPR member station WKMS "have clashed over the station’s investigative reporting involving state lawmakers and other public figures and institutions."
WPSD Local6 extensively investigated and reported on Murray State administrators' efforts to impede WKMS news stories -- particularly embarrassing or unfavorable stories involving local and state officials. In March, WPSD sued MSU in a records access dispute involving public records documenting university administrators' threats to WKMS's editorial independence. That open records case continues.
In light of these events, "WKU President Timothy Caboni said it was important for the board to publicly validate its support for the editorial independence of public media.
“'As president, what I want everyone to understand is that it also has complete autonomy to ask any questions it wants to ask, pursue any stories it wants to pursue, without any interference from the institution, its leadership, or its PR program,' Caboni said."
While it's journalism program has few rivals, Western Kentucky University's administrators have not always created a climate favorable to the media and keeping the public informed:
• in 2017, WKU University's lawsuit initiated a lawsuit against its student newspaper -- The Heights-Herald -- and that suit has yet to be finally resolved. The case originated in the university's refusal to permit the newspaper access to Title IX-related records, including investigations of university employees for sexual misconduct involving students. Western released heavily redacted responsive records only after the Kentucky Supreme Court issued its opinion in University of Kentucky v The Kernel, Inc. At last check, however, the parties continue to spar over the scope of permissible redactions in the Warren Circuit Court;
• in 2021, WKU’s Name and Symbols Task Force was the focus of criticism based on its lack of transparency. Formed in 2020, the task force was charged with recommending changes to “problematic names” on the WKU campus. It conducted no public meetings and made no effort to comply with the open meetings law. Members agreed (or were required) to sign nondisclosure agreements. A university spokesperson later described NDA's as “extremely common” at universities for matters that “could be devisive or controversial.” Subsequent reporting confirmed that the practice was widespread at WKU.
• in 2022, the WKU American Association of University Professors chapter expressed concern about “the lack of transparency in how policy & procedure are interpreted & applied” in a termination hearing involving a tenured professor that was ultimately resolved in her favor.
• in November, 2022, WKU denied The Heights-Herald access to the hospitality rider to a performance contract between the university and Shaquille O’Neal, also known as "DJ Diesel." The Kentucky Attorney General rejected WKU's claim that the hospitality rider was protected under the proprietary records/trade secrets exception to the open records law in a December, 2022, open records decision.
But the Board of Regents' action on August 11, and President Caboni's subsequent comments, may signal a deepening awareness of the threats to an independent media and the importance of the public's right to know. WKU's greatest test lies ahead -- when the light of public scrutiny next shines on it.