N. Carolina media will have access to chancellor committee meetings

NORTH CAROLINA — The University of North Carolina settled out of court with student journalists and other media seeking wider access to chancellor committee meetings. Last April, the North Carolina Press Association and twelve member newspapers threatened to file suit against the university system unless access restrictions were changed. North Carolina’s Open Meetings Act states that official meetings of “public bodies … must be conducted in public.” The North Carolina Press Association disputed the school system1s previously limited interpretation of “public bodies.” Following the threat of litigation, the state board of governors, which oversees the university system, set up a committee to mediate the complaints. Both sides reached an agreement in August that will function until potential legislative action clarifies existing laws. The compromise was enacted in the form of a memorandum sent to university attorneys by the president of the University of North Carolina, C.D. Spangler Jr. The following represents the major changes in the university system’s policy:The new compromise outlines how a public body covered by the open meetings law is established. Under revised guidelines, committees appropriated by the university1s highest officials (the chancellor, vice-chancellor, etc.) are public bodies. Other committees, for example those established by deans, are not public and therefore not covered by the open meetings laws.The agreement also specifies the composition of what may be considered a public body. If a committee is established by high ranking university officials, in order to be exempt from open meetings laws they must be exclusively attended by “professional staff” or “administrative officers.” Committees with students, faculty or alumni will be considered public.The agreement makes clear that the scope of meetings considered public must have relevance to the entire university community. This qualification is expected to greatly limit the number of committees covered by the open meetings law.Finally, the compromise states that a committee is a public body if it has the ability to make change, or if its non-binding work is mandated by an official body with the power to enact change.Kevin Schwartz, general manager of The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was happy with the agreement. “We got virtually everything we asked for,” he said, “and in practice, the process has been working as planned….” The chancellor’s meetings issue united newspapers across the state in an effort revise the university system’s 2-year-old interpretation of the state’s open meetings law. Though many university meetings will be affected, the chancellor’s committee meetings were of particular concern to journalists. These meetings, made up of university employees, students and community representatives, advise the chancellor on a wide range of campus issues from athletics to campus facilities.