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Restraining order cuts off access to sexual harassment complaint

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Restraining order cuts off access to sexual harassment complaint

  • A Rutherford County chancellor ordered a sexual harassment complaint temporarily off limits to reporters and scheduled a hearing to decide if the complaint falls under state’s Public Records Act.

Nov. 4, 2003 — A Rutherford County chancery court judge in Murfreesboro issued a temporary restraining order on a sexual harassment complaint against the president of Middle Tennessee State University after The Tennessean requested the record from the state’s Board of Regents.

Chancellor Robert E. Corlew III last month ruled that the Board of Regents could not release the complaint, pending a Nov. 12 hearing to decide if it should be released under the Tennessee Public Records Act.

The hearing was to be held 15 days after the Oct. 16 filing of the restraining order, but was delayed after Corlew and the four other Rutherford County judges recused themselves because of ties to the university.

“Under our code of ethics, we are required to recuse ourselves when there’s an apparent conflict,” Corlew said. The case, Jane Doe v. The Tennessee Board of Regents, was sent to Chancellor Thomas E. Gray in Gallatin.

Ellen Margulies, education editor at The Tennessean, said a woman working for the university filed a sexual harassment complaint against its president, Sidney McPhee, Oct. 6. Margulies said The Tennessean learned about the complaint and requested the records from the Board of Regents under the state’s Public Records Act. According to an article in The Tennessean, Board of Regents Communications Director Mary Morgan said attorneys for the board advised the accused and the accuser’s attorney that there were no legal reasons to withhold the complaint from reporters.

Margulies said there had been a couple of recent controversies involving Tennessee college presidents and misappropriation of funds, and The Tennessean was interested in accessing the complaint to inform the public of another possible scandal.

“As a newspaper, we’re on the front line for the public,” said Margulies, “and if something is going on, the public has the right to know.”

However, Corlew ruled — in response to a request by the woman alleging harassment — that the complaint should not be released. The Tennessean reported that the woman filed the complaint Oct. 6 and asked that her name be kept confidential. After the Board of Regents advised her that the media would report on the event, she withdrew the complaint Oct. 14. Although the complaint was withdrawn, the Board of Regents is still investigating the complaint.

Margulies said the judge’s decision to restrict the complaint and to keep the woman’s name confidential is unfair because the accuser shouldn’t have more protection than the accused. In addition, Margulies said, the woman could have falsely accused McPhee, which is something the public should know.

(Jane Doe v. The Tennessee Board of Regents) VR

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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