Reporters struggle for open hearings

GEORGIA — Student reporters at Georgia State University in Atlanta have recently found the effort to open campus judicial proceedings can be much more than an open and shut issue.Reporters who were originally denied access to a campus hearing of an alleged hazing case involving the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity had the proceeding opened by school officials. Soon before the trial was set, the editor of the paper was told the case had settled without a hearing, therefore the information remained confidential.But after the settlement of the Phi Beta Sigma case, reporters got a foot in the door of their campus court system when they were granted permission by the school to cover a hearing involving a sorority hazing case.The school’s office of legal affairs originally told the Signal, the Georgia State student newspaper, in spring of 1997 that reporters could not attend the scheduled hearing for the Phi Beta Sigma case.”One of our reporters asked if he could cover [the hearing], and they told him ‘ it sounded ludicrous ‘ that he couldn’t unless he got written permission from the defendants,” said Tom Lasseter, then editor of the Signal.Lasseter said Carolyn Carlson, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists and chair of the organization’s Campus Courts Task Force, gave him precedent cases to assist the Signal in its efforts to gain access to the hearing.One of the cases was Red & Black Publishing Co. v. Board of Regents, in which the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the University of Georgia had to open judicial proceedings to the public.”It never made sense to me that students at the University of Georgia could attend disciplinary hearings on their campus while other students at other University System of Georgia campuses could not,” Carlson said.Lasseter said the information helped him to better support the Signal’s argument. “Armed with this information, I met with our legal affairs people,” Lasseter said. But they still refused to open the hearing.Lasseter then sought legal advice from a local attorney, who also supported the Signal’s belief that the hearing should be opened.The Office of Legal Affairs then consulted with the Georgia State Vice President for Student Affairs, who decided the trial could be opened.The Office of Legal Affairs sent a memo to the Signal, and stressed that they were not setting a precedent by granting permission to cover the hearing.”Basically the vice president for student affairs didn’t think it was a big deal, so he just told them to open it,” Lasseter said.But Lasseter said shortly before the hearing was scheduled to take place, the case was settled out of court, and that there would be no hearing. Records of the case were closed to the public.Carlson said that the action of the school left the prospect of opening campus judicial proceedings as a possibility.”Georgia State’s attorney acknowledged that college disciplinary hearings are public under Georgia1s Open Meetings Act,” Carlson said. “He therefore opened the hearing in question, and presumably will use the same reasoning in opening similar hearings in the future.”Since the settling of the Phi Beta Sigma case, the promise of an open campus court has started to become a reality.Shannan Cutler, current Signal editor, said the university has made no attempt in stopping reporters from covering the most recent hazing hearing.”We just made arrangements to cover the hearing and they didn’t try to block it,” she said. “We didn’t have any problem covering this hearing.”