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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 jkelleher@havredailynews.com, 406-265-6795, ext. 17, or 406-390-0798.)

 

Reader Comments

(7)

Willy writes:

Good points Unconvinced, I totally agre. There is also the issue where HDN does not always get the whole truth. What about doing a story as to why so many employees have left Northern since Dr. Jim Lambaugh has arrived on campus? Unless you do not want to step on toes....

unconvinced writes:

Mr. Kelleher, with all due respect sir, methinks you are mixed up. People may not be entitled to their own facts, but the HDN often colors, misinterprets and blatantly misrepresents things that your argument fails horribly. For example, you boldly state the HDN is not afraid to step on people's toes; but why don't you tell the public how your reporter (Schmidt) was verbally threatened by someone from Northern and refuses to report the threat of personal injury to the Police, let alone print it.

Willy writes:

John K you are incorrect. I asked some questions and made comments in the case involving Steve Mills that were based entirely on the HDN article and you never put it on here. I understand the profanity and name calling. Still funny that the HDN likes to censor comments.

Despoticpeon writes:

This has been tabloid reporting at best. A sexual harassment case that you can pry open and turn into a dog and pony show for readers because it happened in a public institution and featured a convenient and high profile villain. And that's all fine really, but this op ed attempting to make HDN's efforts look like high minded muckraking is just sad.

jkelleherHDN writes:

Our policy on comments: People can have their opinions but not their own facts. People should comment on what was in the story. No name-calling. No obscenities. No allegation that someone has been involved in criminal activities. Leave that for law enforcement. No racism. If anyone has a question on why their post was not printed, call me at 265-6795 ext. 17. In case you haven't noticed, we are not afraid to step on people's toes. — John Kelleher, Havre Daily News

Slickboyboo writes:

I have to agree with Willie on this one. Is the Havre daily afraid to step on someones toes when an opinion is submitted that HDN doesn't agree with. How sad of a policy is that !

Willy writes:

You guys fight to get the truth, but you will not print opinions. Is that not contradictory.

 
 
 
 
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