3:15 p.m., April 30, 2013


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First Amendment rights defended one battle at a time

Bruce Moats

To the rescue:

Bruce Moats talks to students in Santa Fe, N.M., during a First Amendment discussion.

Cassie Kelley, Assistant Online Editor

Sometimes it’s not acts of terrorism. Sometimes it’s not raging fires or shattering hurricanes. Sometimes it’s small, quiet. No matter what the tragedy, great or small, there are those who run away and those who charge into the fray. These are the ones we call—heroes.

Wingspan is proud to present the 2013 Dr. Howard Major First Amendment Guardian Award to Bruce Moats, our “Bruce Almighty,” for his long service in the protection of First Amendment rights in the state of Wyoming. A former reporter, turned lawyer, Moats serves as counsel to the Wyoming Press Association (WPA).

Dr. Major inpires First Amendment Award

In 2010, the award was created in honor of Dr. Howard Major, who retired that year as dean of Laramie County Community College’s arts and humanities division and was a champion of the First Amendment and the “marketplace of ideas.” Dr. Major was willing to risk his own job to defend Wingspan from administrative pressure.

When the award was created, it was not designed to be given every year, but only when it was deserved. Yet, in 2011, Wingspan found another deserving individual. That year Dr. Kevin Kilty, LCCC trustee, was honored for his willingness to ask the difficult questions at board meetings and to encourage the campus community to adopt an academic freedom statement. Wingspan said at the time that Kilty protects First Amendment rights by utilizing them.

Last year, Jim Angell, executive director of the WPA, received the award for assisting Wingspan in defeating LCCC’s proposed open records rules. In testimony before the trustees during the fall 2011 semester, Angell argued the cumbersome rule would have made LCCC less transparent.

The freedom of speech and the freedom of the press to keep the citizens of the nation informed are so important they are listed first in the Bill of Rights. But today, even 200 years later, news publications large and small still fight with local, state and federal agencies for information and access on the public’s behalf.

First responders go extra mile

Many defend First Amendment rights. Only a few like Moats are first-responders. Earlier this year, he was already Wingspan’s hero for taking the University of Wyoming to court in its attempt to hire a new president secretly. Moats became our superhero when he offered to represent Wingspan in an open records dispute with the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department and the Laramie County attorney.

Moats first charged to defend the public’s right to know while representing Wyoming media against the UW board of trustees in its attempt to keep the university’s presidential search secret. The trustees sought to keep the names of candidates confidential. A group of media organizations, including The Associated Press, Cheyenne Newspapers Inc. and Lee Newspapers, successfully sued citing the move violated public records law. After losing the battle in court and having been ordered to release the names of the candidates, UW took the issue to the 62nd Legislature, which passed HB 223 allowing secret searches for the university and the seven community colleges.

An unintended consequence of the legislation was LCCC and the six other community colleges were unnecessarily included.

“I don’t even know why the community colleges were involved with this. We always had open presidential searches, and all of them have been very successful,” Dr. Joe Schaffer, LCCC president, said.

Nonetheless, after all this, UW released the names of the finalists.

“Given the importance of the position, the public had a right to have input in the decision of the university trustees,” Moats said. It has been proven that the more people are involved with the process, the better the decision is made in the end, Moats added.

“It really comes down to two issues. No. 1, the founding fathers said each individual has the right to govern themselves, regardless if that makes the search or government better or worse,” Moats said. “No. 2 is we found it makes our government better.”

Wyoming is a tightknit community, in which people take pride in participating in the affairs of the university, the colleges and government. Leaving out the press, and, therefore, the public, is what we expect our First Amendment first-responders to challenge. “If you have a government by the people, but then you don’t give them any power, it is useless,” Moats said.

Bruce Almighty defends Wingspan

More recently, Wingspan found ourselves facing an issue that hit much closer to home. While attempting to follow up on a Feb. 24 “alcohol incident,” involving underage drinking in the campus residence hall, Wingspan was stonewalled.

LCCC Campus Safety officials told Wingspan it was not their record to release and referred our reporter to the Laramie County Sherriff’s Department. Laramie County Attorney Mark Voss told Wingspan that the record could not be released because of the involvement of criminal history records in the reports and referred Wingspan to the county court for records. However, without knowing the names of the individuals involved, Wingspan was not allowed access to the citations.

Underage drinking is defined as a criminal offense, so that in order to obtain these citations, Wingspan needed the names of the individuals involved. Unsure what “criminal history” had to do with a simple Sheriff Department report on the incident, Wingspan asked for clarification from the Angell and the WPA, who referred us to Moats.

While the “simple” issue of obtaining records on an underage drinking incident at the college might seem rather small, “the stand Mark Voss took made it a big issue,” Moats said. “If that was applied across the state, then information about crime, which is vital to local communities and the state at large, would not be available.” Further, the community would be unable to learn about local crime, but, most importantly, the community would be unable to judge how law enforcement, prosecutors and judges are enforcing laws.

“The fact that they say that investigative reports are confidential across the board of the Sheriff’s Department is a big issue,” Moats said. This is the reason Moats has volunteered to represent Wingspan in talks with the Sheriff’s Department and Voss.

Moats said he was unsure why the county would take the position that sheriff’s investigative reports are confidential. “I don’t understand what is going on here. I think the Sheriff’s Department understands the need to put out information about what is going on. That’s why they put out press releases,” Moats said.

This is how the small, quiet tragedies become the larger injustices, and without the diligence of our First Amendment heroes, like Bruce Moats, it would happen much more often. When we see a citizen standing up for the rights of others in this way, it gives us reason to take notice, but when it is repeated so often by the same individual, that is when we stand up and recognize him with an honor such as the Dr. Howard Major First Amendment Guardian Award.

May 2012: Students name WPA executive director 'First Amendment Guardian'

May 2011: Wingspan honors new trustee with First Amendment award