Tom West: High school athletics, privacy laws need fixing
Budgeteer News
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 ouster.

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 from now.

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