COLUMBIA, Mo. In a court-approved settlement of a newspaper’s lawsuit, the University of Missouri conceded April 1 that it is a public body covered by the state open-records law.
The settlement means the university will release thousands of pages of internal audits that were sought in the lawsuit filed in 1998 by The Kansas City Star.
The university will also pay for the Star’s legal costs.
In exchange, under the settlement the Star dropped several individual university officials as defendants and agreed to withdraw its charge that the refusals to release the information were “purposeful,” a key in court to considering possibly substantial monetary penalties.
Charles Davis, a journalism professor at the university’s Columbia campus who directs its Freedom of Information Center, called the settlement a “turning point” against the institution’s “ludicrous” legal position that it was not covered by the open-meetings and -records law.
“It’s a resounding victory for open government,” Davis said.
Last September, Circuit Judge Frank Conley ruled for the Star, declaring in Boone County Circuit Court that the university was wrong to insist for years that it didn’t have to release the records.
The university had appealed Conley’s ruling, but the university’s new president, Elson Floyd, said he directed the school’s lawyers to work toward a settlement instead.
“This was a matter that has been lingering for many years, and I thought it was appropriate to bring an end to it,” Floyd, who took office in January, said April 1 during the regular meeting of the university’s governing Board of Curators on the Rolla campus.
The settlement requires the university to pay the Star $77,806 in legal costs, which the newspaper reported was the largest known award against a state agency under the Sunshine Law.
The Star filed the 1998 lawsuit after the university rejected its request for the release of copies of 510 audits covering the institution’s finances and operations and its compliance with laws and regulations for the preceding five years.
In its refusal, the university cited a 1983 appeals court ruling involving the Columbia Daily Tribune, which held that only the Board of Curators was a public body under the law. Therefore, the university’s lawyers said, the audits were not public documents because they had not been presented to the curators.
The lawyers also argued that the audits contained confidential information about legal actions and private information about individual employees.
In his ruling, Conley said the university’s Sunshine Law violations were intentional and that the institution should have recognized four amendments to the open-records statute since the 1983 Tribune ruling.
The judge also faulted the university for failing to at least seek a judicial opinion or an opinion from the state attorney general before denying the Star’s request.
Jean Maneke, a Sunshine Law attorney for the Missouri Press Association, said the settlement was a “big victory” because it deals with “an obstacle that has been a thorn for many media entities for many, many years.”
Maneke said it also sets a precedent for government agencies to pay sizable plaintiffs’ legal fees should the agencies lose Sunshine Law cases.
The Star had sought nearly $130,000 in legal fees but agreed upon the smaller amount in the settlement.
Joe Moore, a university spokesman, said the settlement meant the institution admitted no wrongdoing while establishing that “as of now, records of the curators of the University of Missouri will be recognized as public records.”