Tom West: High school athletics, privacy
laws need fixing
Last Updated: Friday,
April 16th, 2004 01:31:08 PM
Readers who think former Duluth East hockey coach Mike Randolph received unusual
treatment when he lost his job a year ago are wrong.
Oh, sure, it was unusual for Duluth to fire somebody without warning who a year
later is still trying to get answers as to what he did that justified his
But it is not unusual if one thinks beyond the city limits and realizes that the
mistreatment of high school coaches has been taking place all across this state
with impunity. School administrators and conniving parents have been allowed to
hide behind privacy laws for years now — never mind that privacy laws were
designed to protect the individual, not the policy makers of the public schools.
And, if you want to know just how bad things have become, consider the case of
Wally Wakefield — a guy who had the good sense not to become a coach.
Wally Wakefield was an elementary teacher for 29 years in suburban St. Paul.
After retiring, in order to keep busy, he took a part-time job covering sports
for the Maplewood Review. It kept Wally out of his wife's hair, kept him close
to the kids he loved and kept his mind occupied.
And, boy, is it ever occupied now.
In 1997, Tartan High School in Oakdale fired its football coach, Richard
Weinberger. The school district naturally hid behind the privacy laws. However,
Wally was an enterprising reporter, and he sought out parents and school
officials, trying to get an explanation for the firing.
Eventually, he found several people who agreed to talk to him if he promised not
to reveal their identities. The article was written by another sports reporter
for the newspaper, who included the quotes from Wally’s sources in the story.
The anonymous sources said Weinberger was fired for using foul language and
being abusive toward some of the players.
Weinberger was so upset by the article that he sued the school district and four
of its employees, whom he suspected were Wally’s sources, for defamation.
The plaintiff had one problem. Wally Wakefield had made a promise to his
sources, and he intended to keep it. He was called into court to reveal his
sources, and, when he refused, the judge found him in contempt of court and
fined Wakefield $200 per day until such time as he broke his promise.
Wakefield immediately appealed that ruling, and the fine was stayed until the
appeals process ran its course. First, the case went to the Minnesota Court of
Appeals. It ruled that Wally did not have to pay the fine. However, that ruling
was appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, where, on a 7-2 vote last November,
the fine against Wally was reinstated.
Monday of this past week, the fine kicked in, still at $200 per day. It will
continue until the trial begins. That will be sometime in July, or about $20,000
That’s a hefty price to pay for keeping a promise. It's even heftier when one
considers that the newspaper and Wally were not named in the lawsuit against the
school. More importantly, it sends a chill through the media and the state as a
whole. If reporters promise a source anonymity, then have to break that promise,
many sources will dry up. The result will be that all manner of corruption and
wrongdoing will be covered up.
All of you media critics who think newspapers print only bad news will get your
wish. You’ll get nothing but good news, and you’ll find your newspaper
increasingly irrelevant because a shroud of secrecy will have been thrown over
the major issues of the day.
A defense fund has been established to help Wally pay the fines. If you’d like
to contribute, send your check to the Wally Wakefield Defense Fund, P.O.Box
8115, Minneapolis, MN 55408.
Next Tuesday, Randolph is hopeful of finally getting some answers in his case.
Although I don’t know him well, he seems like a stand-up guy. The voters
ousted a couple of incumbent school board members last fall who dared to defend
the administration’s actions. Personally, I hope he gets his job back.
But even if he does, let’s not resume thinking that all is fine with high
school athletics in Minnesota. When coaches are getting jobbed and reporters are
getting fined, we need to take a new look at our privacy laws, and take away the
ability of public policy makers to hide behind them.
Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News.
I wrote this short reply
to Tom's publication