Student journalist sues Cal Poly for withholding public records

A student journalist at Cal Poly is suing the university for withholding public records regarding sexual assault and labor violations on campus.

The lawsuit, filed by the First Amendment Coalition on Tuesday, alleges Cal Poly did not properly respond to three public record requests filed by Mustang News journalist Elizabeth Wilson between September and October 2022.

The First Amendment Coalition is a nonprofit legal group that provides legal support for First Amendment issues, including free speech, free press and public meeting access.

“It was a buildup of realizing that the transparency of these records is the most important thing and by waiting more than 18 months — waiting more than a year — that is not acceptable,” Wilson told The Tribune. “These records are important to the Cal Poly community. The public has a right to know, and being patient was not enough. I had to take action.”

Lawsuits only represent one side of a dispute. Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier told The Tribune the university does not comment on pending legal matters.

Wilson is a third-year journalism student at Cal Poly and data investigations reporter for Mustang News. She interned for The Tribune from November 2022 to August 2023.

Cal Poly violated California Public Records Act, lawsuit alleges

Wilson said Cal Poly has responded and provided documents to other public record requests in the past but has not been forthcoming with three requests for emails regarding alleged sexual assault and labor violations on campus and the hiring of former CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro by the Orfalea College of Business.

Castro was hired as a business professor at Cal Poly after he stepped down from his CSU position when USA Today reported he failed to respond to at least 12 Title IX violations during his tenure as president of Fresno State University.

According to court documents, Wilson filed a request on Sept. 30, 2022, for email conversations between Armstrong and Castro since February 2022.

In a separate request on Sept. 2, 2022, Wilson asked for all email conversations between Keith Humphrey, Cal Poly’s vice president of Student Affairs, and Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong that contained the words “rape,” “sexual assault,” and “safety” from the 2021 academic year.

Finally, on Oct. 6, 2022, Wilson asked for emails from Andrene Kaiwi-Conner, director of the new student transition program at the time, that contained the words ”quit,” “verb,” “Mustang News,” “emergency,” “understaffed” and “complaint.” Kaiwi-Conner quit her position after Mustang News published an article containing alleged labor violations from student employees supervised by Kaiwi-Conner.

“Safety as a whole was something that I was really curious about in making these requests and wanting to know the internal communications about these issues,” Wilson told The Tribune. “I really wanted to know what was happening behind the scenes and what more was there beyond what the university was saying.”

In all three requests, Cal Poly indicated the university would search for the records but failed to produce them, provide an estimated release date — which is required under California law — or explain why it has not yet produced the records.

Wilson followed up on all three requests numerous times, the lawsuit said.

The First Amendment Coalition wrote the university a letter on Wilson’s behalf on June 16, 2023, that identified “numerous California Public Records Act violations.” A month later the university told Wilson she should begin receiving responsive records “as they become available” and would be advised of progress on a bi-weekly basis.

Cal Poly told Wilson it identified approximately 50 emails responsive to one of her requests, the lawsuit said, and said it “finished reviewing” those records and they only needed to be reviewed by university counsel for redactions in August 2023, which they said would take “a few more weeks,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges Cal Poly stopped updating Wilson in September 2023. Wilson has not received records to this date.

“While the lawsuit is focused on three three specific requests I made, I also hope that this sparks a larger conversation about transparency and institutional accountability when it comes to records and the right to know this information,” Wilson said.