Court allows release of files on complaints against professor
WISCONSIN–Records containing allegations of sexual misconduct by a state university professor may be released to the public, a state appellate court in Madison held in early April. Citing the public’s “substantial legitimate interest in student-faculty relations at our state universities,” the court overturned an injunction that barred the release of four sets of university records detailing the professor’s alleged misconduct and the university’s response.
In a unanimous decision, a three judge panel held that the public’s interest in the enforcement of university rules and the manner in which student complaints against faculty are handled outweighed the professor’s interest in preventing embarrassment and damage to his reputation.
Personnel records of state employees are not exempt from public disclosure in Wisconsin. They are, however, subject to a balancing test in which harm resulting from disclosure is weighed against the public’s interest in disclosure.
Although the professor will suffer some embarassment, the purported harm does not outweigh the public interest in disclosure, the court wrote.
Further, the court found that the damage to the professor may not be as severe as he contends. The public could reasonably conclude from the requested materials that the professor’s version of events was true and reject the allegations against him as unproven, the court noted.
A newspaper and radio station had asked the university to release the records, which included allegations against the professor, copies of his employment history, and records of disciplinary action taken against him.
In response to the request, the university compiled copies of investigatory files containing allegations made against the professor by two students, documents related to a complaint made against the professor by a university employee and documents related to travel restrictions placed on the professor as a result of the allegations against him.
The documents revealed that as a result of the allegations, the university investigated the professor’s conduct as possible sexual harassment. Although the university’s affirmative action committee later cleared the professor on the sexual harassment charge, it concluded that he behaved inappropriately and noted the determination in his personnel file.
(Marder v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System)