“I wasn’t going to roll over and give up:” Catching up with Alex Nemec and his “No-Comment Story” open-records lawsuit

Back in April, I posted a story on how to make a story out of a series of “no comment” statements. Alex Nemec, now a general-assignment reporter with the Oconomowoc Enterprise, matched wits against a system meant to tell him nothing in hopes of making sure he could tell students at UW-Oshkosh something about the removal of a professor from a classroom.

Nemec’s story, titled “The Curious Case of Willis Hagen,” is just one part of a reporting experience that has led to a yearlong court battle over open records. Last week, an appeals court in Wisconsin ruled that Nemec was entitled to the records he sought about previous university investigations into Hagen. The records will remain sealed for 30 days, during which time, Hagen can decide if he will appeal the decision to the state’s supreme court. If he chooses not to do so, the records will be released. If he decides to appeal, the case will continue.

I checked in with Nemec after the court made its ruling for an update on the case and his thoughts about the process:

You graduated back in December, your current job has no attachment to this at all, it’s been 18 months since the catalyst (his removal from class) that got you interested in this and you still have no idea what is in these things. Why did you continue to push for this release when you could have said, “To hell with this” and let it go?

I continued to push for this because it was the right thing to do. Open records laws are important to journalists and the more cases we win as journalists, the more cases there are to point to when we are receiving push back from people who don’t want to release them. If we continue to rack up the reasons why, there won’t be many reasons left as to why not.

In addition, I kept fighting this cause I wanted these records and wanted to know what was going on. A professor being pulled out of class by police officers is a big deal and I don’t really care if it wasn’t some huge scoop where he did something awful at the school, the students and taxpayers should know why.

This could have all been done and over with for a long time now if Hagen or the College of Business had just talked to me and told me what was going on. I intervened in this lawsuit because I believed it was the right thing to do after talking with you. I wanted to make sure this thing went my way and that the people understood what happened.

Lastly, I wasn’t going to roll over and give up just because I’m not affiliated with the case anymore. One, that’s just lazy and you can’t be lazy in this business. I had to fight the good fight for the sake of the industry. Two, I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction that he had beaten me or succeeded in delaying it for so long that I just gave up.

Who has been helpful to you on this and what can you say to other student journalists about the SPLC?
Frank LoMonte from the Student Press Law Center helped me in the beginning with the circuit court case and getting things moving for me to be an intervenor. After Hagen had appealed, he referred me to Christa Westerberg and Aaron Dumas at Pines Bach LLP, both of whom have been incredibly helpful in writing briefs and keeping me updated where the case was in system. They explained to me every step of the way what was going on and answered questions when I had them. I can’t thank any of them enough.

The SPLC is a wonderful resource that every student journalist should be aware of if they are having issues with records request or any other legal matter with their student newspaper. They are there to help and I’m so thankful they were there for me.

If you had it to do over again, would you? Why or why not?

I would absolutely do it over again given I had the same resources I have now. Receiving all this help pro bono is obviously a HUGE help, I don’t know what I would have done had it not been pro bono. But yes, given the same resources I have now, I would do it again because it is important that the University community and the taxpayers know what is going on and aren’t being left in the dark.

Anything you’d like to tell student journalists out there who are looking into a “big story” via open records?
To the students who have a scent of a big story of open records, absolutely go for it. Open records is a great thing to get a handle on and understand, not even as a a journalist, but as a citizen. Journalists are suppose to inform the public of happenings in the community and open records is a great way to do that. If someone is denying the open records request, they are more than likely hiding something, which is in turn, a great story to write.
Given my experience with open records requests, they can be either quick and easy and you’ll get what you want fairly soon, or you end up in a year and a half lawsuit. Long story short, pursue open records stories.
More often than not, my money is on that if they won’t give you the records, it’s a good story and one you’ll enjoy writing.

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