TOPEKA – A Douglas County judge Thursday blocked the University of Kansas from releasing hundreds of pages of emails and other documents to a student group looking for ties between an economic research center and billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
Douglas County District Judge Robert Fairchild issued his temporary restraining order the same day that Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics, sued the university to prevent the release of years of emails, correspondence and notes. His lawsuit said the university notified him this week it would release documents Friday to Students for a Sustainable Future.
The group’s president, Schuyler Kraus, filed an open records request in August, seeking emails, correspondence, contracts and other documents, some predating the center’s 2004 founding. The center is privately funded but housed in the School of Business on the university’s Lawrence campus.
The group raised $1,800 to pay the cost cited by the university for fulfilling the request, and Vice Chancellor Tim Caboni said KU planned to release about 1,800 pages of emails. Fairchild’s order will remain in effect at least until an initial hearing in Hall’s lawsuit, which hasn’t been scheduled.
Stopping the records’ release would “avoid immediate irreparable injury, loss and damage” to Hall, the judge wrote.
Hall said such records requests are “sand in the gears,” potentially harassing researchers and professors over their views and chilling campus speech. He also said the materials sought represent private correspondence and notes, not public documents requiring disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act.
“This really is a major academic-freedom issue,” Hall said.
John Hardin, spokesman for the Charles Koch Foundation, a nonprofit that lists the University of Kansas as a beneficiary, said it believes what researchers study and how must be left to the universities and their researchers.
“Our role is to provide the funding,” he said.
Hall is a former chief economist for the public-sector group at Koch Industries Inc., the company headed by Charles Koch. Hall is known in Kansas for holding free-market views in line with those of the Koch brothers, who fund conservative political causes nationally.
The open records request included a reference to a proposal before the Kansas Legislature this year to repeal a renewable energy requirement for utilities, backed by Koch Industries and supported publicly by Hall.
Kraus said the issue isn’t the Kochs’ views but whether the university is allowing influential donors to use the university’s name and credibility to promote their ideas in the guise of academic research.
“Universities are founded on the principles of transparency and open learning and truth-seeking,” she said.
Caboni said the university reviewed the records sought carefully, redacting students’ names to protect their privacy and withholding some material, including records of the “back and forth” over research in progress.
“We think the Open Records Act requires us to release these documents,” Caboni said. “We think we’ve done everything in the university’s power to follow the letter of the law and be transparent.”
But Curtis Tideman, an Overland Park attorney representing Hall, said transparency won’t be sacrificed if the materials are not released.
“Dr. Hall’s association with the Kochs has not been hidden,” Tideman said. “His market-based economic theories are not a secret.”