By Linda Blackford | Lexington Herald-Leader

The Kentucky attorney general doesn’t have the authority to confidentially examine documents in open records disputes if they are protected under federal student privacy laws, a Fayette Circuit Judge has ruled.

The ruling is a victory for the University of Kentucky, which would not let Attorney General Andy Beshear review documents in a sexual harassment case to see if they should be released to the independent student newspaper at UK. The Kentucky Kernel had requested the documents under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Travis found that federal student privacy laws take precedence over the attorney general’s role in adjudicating open records disputes.

In this case, the Kernel asked UK for documents pertaining to the sexual harassment of a student by a professor. UK refused, and Beshear’s office requested to see some of the documents “in camera,” or confidentially, to see if they should remain private or be released under the state’s Open Records Act. UK, though, refused to let Beshear’s office see the documents.

The attorney general ruled in favor of the newspaper, prompting UK to sue The Kernel in order to keep the documents secret. A judge ruled in UK’s favor this year, but the question of whether UK was required to submit the documents to Beshear’s office was split off into a separate case.

“Ultimately, the court concludes that federal law must trump state law,” Travis wrote in his ruling. “As is specific to this case, the requested documents are ‘education records’ such that they are covered by FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act). Although the outcome for the requester may be unsatisfactory, records that fall under the federal law exception to the Open Records Act are generally outside the purview of public requests, even by the AG for ‘in camera’ review.”

Beshear said Monday that he would appeal the decision.

“Today’s decision would deal a serious blow to public transparency, as well as the ability to hold universities accountable for how they respond to and investigate sexual assault by professors and administrators,” Beshear said.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the ruling upheld the university’s opinion that it must protect the privacy of students.

“We take very seriously our legal and moral obligation to protect the privacy of our students in general and survivors of violence in particular; and we will continue to do so,” he said.