Student editors file suit against Mich. college for closed meeting

MICHIGAN — The Oakland University student newspaper hasfiled suit against the board of trustees alleging that it violated open-meetingslaws when it held a January meeting without public notice.The OaklandPost editor Ann Zaniewski said she discovered the meeting when one of thetrustees entered the student union building at an odd hour. Zaniewski followedthe trustee to a room where a board meeting notice was posted. After beingdenied access, she found two other editors and sat outside the room until themeeting concluded. Six of the eight trustees were in attendance.”Allthey told us was that it was a briefing on the higher education budget,”Zaniewski said. “They claim that no decisions were made.”After themeeting, Zaniewski filed a criminal complaint with the Michigan Department ofthe Attorney General and with the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, allegingthat the board violated the state open-meetings law. The prosecutors declined topress charges.Under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, “all deliberations ofa public body constituting a quorum of its members shall take place at a meetingopen to the public.” Meetings dealing with personnel matters, legal counsel orarbitration are exempt by state law.The Post also publishedweekly stories about the closed meeting and reported how other public bodieshandled the open-meetings act. Staff members started a petition drive thatgarnered 1,201 signatures and asked the board to conduct its business in public.Shortly before the next board meeting, the Post‘s board ofdirectors received a letter from the board that threatened to sue them.In the letter, university general counsel Victor Zambardi wrote that “ifthe Oakland [Post] publishes another article stating or implying that the boardhas violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act, or files another false complaint, Iwill recommend the immediate commencement of legal proceedings against theOakland [Post] as a corporate entity and against those individualsresponsible.”Zambardi also referenced a “dismissed” criminal complaintmade against the board in 2001, which alleged that the board violated theopen-meetings act. The university has maintained that the board is not subjectto the open-meetings law, due to a 1999 state supreme court decision that ruledMichigan State University’s presidential selection process need not be conductedin open meetings.Following the university’s threat, the Postretained media lawyer Herschel Fink, who filed suit in circuit court against theboard March 26.Fink replied that the Michigan State case the universitycited was only applicable to presidential searches. It also was limited to thethree universities created by the Michigan Constitution, of which Oakland wasnot a member.”I am also considering filing a civil rights suit againstthe board of trustees for interfering with the students’ First Amendment rightsby threatening them with a libel suit for having criticized the board oftrustees,” Fink said.Fink also filed a motion for summary judgment March31.