Public has right to know the story
June 23, 2014
During the last two weeks, the story of an alleged sexual harassment at Montana State University-Northern was brought out in public.
The general outline of what happened at Northern is not a surprise. Rumors of the incidents have been spreading in the community, especially at Northern, for some time. The allegations detailed in the testimony are perhaps not as torrid as had been rumored.
Northern is not the first employer in Montana to be faced with these kinds of problems. Employees at workplaces throughout the state have felt they were sexully harassed for many years. In recent years, changing mores and tougher laws have made it somewhat easier for victims to come forward. Old-timers like me can recall days when sexist comments and innuendos in the workplace were rather common. The victims, more or less, were told to suck it up. Thankfully, this is changing for the better.
The Northern situation is similar to what other employers have felt except that in this case the alleged abuser is female and the victim is male. This is not the norm, though it certainly is not unprecedented.
Also at Northern, the two involved are highly placed administrators at a taxpayer-supported university.
We don’t pretend to know who is telling the truth and who is guilty in this case. We don’t envy Montana Human Relations Bureau hearing officer Terry Spear who will have to make the decision. He has a difficult task, though we’d be flabbergasted if the losing side didn’t appeal to the courts.
Another thing we are sure of is that the Havre Daily News will be reporting on the case to the end.
We have endured some criticism on the campus for our insistence that the hearings and records in the case be open to the public.
Since Rosalyn Templeton resigned as provost, campus officials have been edgy about discussing the case, refusing to elaborate on her departure.
When the newspaper filed a request under the Open Records Act, Chancellor Jim Limbaugh said nothing about a toxic atmosphere, but when questioned in Human Relations Bureau depositions, he spoke of a "toxic atmosphere" that had developed at the university.
Some Northern officials have suggested that reporter John Paul Schmidt was looking to win a Pulitzer Prize in his coverage of the episode. Unlikely.
Our attorney, Mike Meloy of Helena, the state’s premiere expert in public records, filed a request with the Human Relations Bureau that the records and hearing be open to the public.
According to the law, the bureau was to decide if the public's right to know superseded the participants’ right to privacy.
Meloy argued that when high-ranking officials at a public university were involved in the case and the taxpayers were to pick up the legal fees and any award payments, it was the public’s right to know what was going on.
Templeton’s lawyer and attorneys for the Montana University system fought our efforts.
It took almost four months, in part because Templeton’s lawyer was involved in a high-profile criminal case, but Spear came down with a ruling completely in our favor.
Meloy had offered to redact the names of third-party witnesses. Spear ruled that wasn’t necessary. We hope that the decision is precedent-setting, be it in a case of a state fish hatchery employee or a Highway Patrol officer.
Some people have accused us of dragging Northern through the mud by covering events of the last two weeks.
A public cleansing is always good for any institution in the long run.
If in the short run, Northern seems to be mud-covered, Spear will decide who is to blame.
But it’s not the fault the reporter who let the public know what’s going on.
(John Kelleher is managing editor of the Havre Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com, 406-265-6795, ext. 17, or 406-390-0798.)