Judge says CUNY student senate is public body

NEW YORK — A state court judge ruled in July that the City Universityof New York’s University Student Senate violated the state’s open-meetingsand freedom-of-information laws by electing officers and conducting votesby secret ballot.

State Supreme Court Justice William J. Davis’ ruling declared the studentsenate to be a public body under New York’s open-meetings laws and an agencyunder the state’s freedom of information laws because the USS elects anex-officio member of the school’s board of trustees, distributes studentactivities fees and selects recipients of scholarships funded by publicmoney.

The USS is a student government body with elected delegates from allCUNY schools. It receives funding from a mandatory student fee of 85 centsper student each semester.

In October of 1999, the USS held its annual election, choosing a chairand six officers by a secret ballot vote, with no record kept of how eachdelegate voted.

Two students, both student journalists at CUNY schools, filed suit,claiming that the votes cast by each delegate were “of great interest toCUNY students in general, who have a right to know the vote of their electedrepresentatives, and student journalists in particular, who have a specialinterest in being able to report to their fellow students how the USS delegatesvoted.”

The school had argued that the student senate was not a public bodyrequired to comply with state open-meetings laws, which define a publicbody as an entity that requires a quorum to conduct public business, consistsof two or more members and performs a governmental function for the state.

Under state regulations, any agency — defined as any state or governmententity performing a governmental function-is also required to comply withthe freedom of information law.

After examining the student senate’s constitution and bylaws, Davisruled that because the USS is responsible for allocating student activityfees-which are mandatory, collected by the state and therefore consideredpublic funds — it is considered to be performing a governmental functionfor the purposes of state open meetings and freedom of information laws.Both laws prohibit secret ballot elections.