Bridge over troubled water

\nNEW YORK – The state’s highest court ruled Feb. 11 that\na community college committee violated the state open meetings\nlaw when it imposed restrictions on a student newspaper and allocated\nstudent fees in a private session.

“The Open Meetings Law is designed to ensure that public\nbusiness is conducted in an observable manner; to promote this\ngoal, the provisions of the Open Meetings Law are to be liberally\nconstrued,” Judge Joseph W. Bellacosa said in his final opinion\nin Smith v. City Univ. of New York, 92 N.Y. 2d 707 (1999).

\nThe unanimous ruling annulled the restrictions on the newspaper\nand said that LaGuardia Community College was subject to the open\nmeetings law “for almost any imaginable purpose.”

Ronald McGuire, attorney for the student newspaper staff members\nwho contested the closed meeting, said the court has sent a clear\nmessage to the college that its campaign to deny students basic\npolitical rights has gone too far.

“This case marks a turning point in the fight for student\nrights and the beginning of the end of the civil rights catastrophe\nthat has been perpetrated on CUNY students since 1991,” McGuire\nsaid.

The open meetings challenge began in 1994 when security guards\nprevented a local radio reporter and the editor of the college\nnewspaper, The Bridge, from attending a meeting of the\nLaGuardia Community College Association, a board which sets the\nbudgets for school clubs. During the meeting, the board allocated\nstudent fees and imposed restrictions on The Bridge, including\na mandatory pre-publication review by the association.

Three months earlier the association had suspended publication\nof the paper after a column that contained comments perceived\nas anti-Semitic drew criticism from City Council members and Jewish\nleaders.

An appellate court had ruled that the association was not subject\nto the open meetings law. It said the association was not a public\nbody because it performed only an advisory function and did not\nhave final decision making power. But the New York Court of Appeals,\nNew York’s highest court, disagreed.

“The Association … performs substantially more than a mere\nadvisory function with respect to college activities and expenditures\nand, therefore, exercises a quintessential governmental function,”\nhe said.

The court also rejected CUNY’s arguments that student activity\nfees were private funds, ruling that the funds are “garnered\nby the state and dedicated to support student expression activity\nin a public university.”

McGuire said the open meetings laws are virtually the only legal\nprotection students have over student activity fees. If the college\nhad won, he said, students would have been stripped of their right\nto oversee the distribution of their funds.