UK College of Communication and Information hosts 2021 State of the First Amendment Address


A person walks up the ice covered step of the Kentucky State Capitol on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, in Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff.

The University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information hosted the annual State of the First Amendment Address on Wednesday, Nov. 17, featuring an address reinforcing journalists’ rights to report without restrictions from the government.

The address focused on the Kentucky Kernel’s win in May 2021 against the University of Kentucky in the Kentucky Supreme Court. After UK failed to comply with an open records request from the Kernel regarding a sexual assault accusation against a professor, a legal battle ensued. 

After a four-year legal battle, the Kernel won the case. The court said that the university “failed to comply with its obligation” under the Kentucky Open Records Act (ORA). 

Elizabeth Woodward and Tom Miller, the attorneys who defended the Kernel, gave the address. 

They spoke on the case itself and the rights of journalists, touching on the difference between a journalist’s rights under the First Amendment and their rights to open records. Woodward explained that cases such as the one between the Kernel and the University of Kentucky can result in changes of the ORA. For instance, in summer 2021, the number of days public agencies have to handle requests increased from three to five days, and the law changed to grant only Kentucky residents the ability to request open records.

“The Supreme Court held that the university had treated the investigative file as if it were one giant record unable to be separated,” Woodward said on the case. 

The attorneys also said that access to information from public agents is in the public interest, making open records cases important to the future of journalism.

“The most rewarding type of work we do is working with journalists, who are the defenders of democracy,” Miller said. 

He went on to explain other cases that he had worked on involving other journalism institutions like the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. 

The event also recognized two of the most recent recipients of the James Madison award, an honor given to individuals who championed the public’s right to access information at the national level.

The recipients, Benny Ivory and Stan MacDonald, spoke on their experiences as journalists and their time defending the First Amendment. 

“The First Amendment was under attack during the good old days, and it is today,” MacDonald said. “The First Amendment is sacred, and it should be protected with everything we have, because without it democracy dies.”

The Kernel was the recipient of the James Madison award last year in recognition of its fight for rights under the First Amendment and the ORA. 

Students, faculty and staff were given a chance to ask the attorneys questions about journalists’ rights and the case at the end of the celebration, including what steps citizens can take to prevent further weakening of the ORA. Miller said that the most important thing people can do is vote.

“Remind [elected officials] how much you care about government transparency,” he said.