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Student journalist sues Cal Poly for California Public Records Act violation 

A Cal Poly student journalist is taking the university to court for allegedly continuing to conceal email records more than a year after she filed public records requests to obtain them.

Elizabeth Wilson, a Mustang News data and investigations reporter set to graduate in 2025, sued Cal Poly and its president, Jeffrey Armstrong, on April 23 for denying access to copies of emails pertaining to internal handling of campus sexual assaults, alleged student labor violations, and hiring tenured business professor Joseph Castro after he reportedly mishandled Title IX complaints as Fresno State University's president.

click to enlarge NAMED Cal Poly student Elizabeth Wilson sued Cal Poly and President Jeffrey Armstrong (pictured) because he oversees the department that denied her access to records of email conversations between him and other officials about campus safety and controversial employment issues. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Cal Poly
  • NAMED Cal Poly student Elizabeth Wilson sued Cal Poly and President Jeffrey Armstrong (pictured) because he oversees the department that denied her access to records of email conversations between him and other officials about campus safety and controversial employment issues.

"The ideal outcome is to get the records that I've been waiting more than 18 months for and to set a standard that journalists should not have to wait this long for public information," Wilson told New Times.

Starting in September 2022, Wilson filed three sets of California Public Records Act requests. The first stemmed from two alleged sexual assault cases that took place on campus within a single week in October 2021. The incidents sparked a call for more robust campus security, according to previous New Times reporting.

Wilson's petition said she launched an investigation into university officials' response to reported sexual assaults. She requested copies of all email conversations between Armstrong and Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Humphrey from the 2021 academic year that contained keywords "rape," "safety," and "sexual assault."

The student journalist also looked into the tenured employment of former CSU Chancellor Castro, who lost his position after media reports revealed that he failed to respond to at least 12 complaints of Title IX violations against one of his top administrators at Fresno State. In September 2022, Wilson requested copies of all email conversations between Armstrong and Castro since February 2022.

In October 2022, she filed a request for copies of all emails from Director of the New Student Transition Program Andrene Kaiwi-Conner since July 2022 that contained the words "quit," "overtime," and "understaffed," among others. The filing came on the heels of a Mustang News story Wilson worked on where student employees of the program alleged that they worked long hours without proper compensation or mandatory breaks in summer 2022.

Wilson didn't receive any of the requested documents. The lawsuit stated that Cal Poly continues to violate state law "by failing to provide an estimated date and time of production on petitioner's requests for the Humphrey-Armstrong emails and Kaiwi-Conner emails."

"If Cal Poly officials were reviewing the Armstrong-Castro emails at even a snail's pace of two emails per week, their review of the 'approximately 50 emails' would have been complete well before the time of filing this petition and complaint," the suit said.

The First Amendment Coalition—a nonprofit public interest organization focused on promoting free speech and open government—represents Wilson, who is suing Cal Poly independently as an individual. The group sent the university a warning letter last June detailing Cal Poly's failure to comply with the state's Public Records Act. The coalition demanded a schedule for rolling production of requested records, an explanation of the searches performed as of June 2023 and those going forward, and a date and time for a phone call with a Cal Poly representative to discuss Wilson's requests.

Cal Poly didn't respond to the letter as promised by an analyst in the university's Civil Rights and Compliance Office. Instead, the university sent a letter a month later confirming its search of the requested documents and that reviewing the emails is a "time-consuming process" for a short-staffed department. By September 2023, Cal Poly stopped responding to Wilson's emails asking for updates.

Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier told New Times the university has no comments on the lawsuit because it's a pending legal matter.

Despite the university's silence, Wilson continued reporting on the issues of campus safety, labor violations, and discrimination. She said that Cal Poly has complied with most of the other public records requests she filed previously.

"I was still able to write these stories, but by not fulfilling my requests, the story was missing context and additional detail that could be important to anyone in the Cal Poly community," she said. "For the stories on campus safety and Cal Poly's response to sexual assault, ... I supplemented the records with talking with students or using other data available."

Wilson's attorney, Annie Cappetta, told New Times that the First Amendment Coalition hadn't represented a student journalist until it took on Wilson's case.

She added that the coalition receives "tons and tons" of inquiries through its free legal hotline about violations of the Public Records Act. It frequently represents journalists battling blocks to open access.

"This case is about transparency and open government," she said. "Without government transparency, there can be no accountability."

Cappetta said that while the coalition is representing Wilson pro bono, legislation allows a civil rights case such as Wilson's to recover attorney's fees from the defendant if the court rules in her favor.

"The Mustang News' readers want and have the right to know how the Cal Poly administration was discussing the different matters in the lawsuit of campus sexual assault and other controversies," Wilson said. "The motive is to get these records. We're suing for information not money damages." Δ

Clarification: This story was updated to include that Elizabeth Wilson is a Mustang News data and investigations reporter set to graduate next year at an unspecified date.

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