Colleges close meetings to reporters, two threaten to rebuke protesting papers

Reporters from student newspapers across the country were surprised when the doors to open meetings were slammed in their faces this year.

College officials at three schools cited privacy concerns in stonewalling reporters from meetings, and after they protested, some officials went as far as threatening them with legal action.

In Colorado three student journalists were denied access to a judicial hearing for the student government president. They now find themselves in trouble.

The reporters for Metro State College‘s student newspaper, The Metropolitan, wanted to cover the hearing for Stephan Evans, who was charged with five counts of violating the student code of conduct in his role as student government president. The charges included physical and verbal abuse.

Student Judicial Officer Elyse Yamauchi told the newspaper that it could not send reporters to the Feb. 24 hearing, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the college’s judicial code. Under FERPA, a school can lose its federal funding if it has a ‘policy or practice of permitting the release of [students’] education records … without the written consent’ of the student.

Evans signed a privacy waiver, which provided his consent for news editor Noelle Leavitt, photographer Danny Holland and reporter Lindsay Sandham to attend the hearing, but they were denied. Evans opened the doors, allowing the journalists to enter the hearing, but they left after Yamauchi called campus security.

On March 24, the student journalists received notice from the college that Yamauchi claimed they disrupted the hearing, which is a violation of the student code of conduct. A college spokesperson told The Rocky Mountain News that charges might never be filed against the students.

The student journalists remain adamant about their right to cover the hearing and are pursuing legal action. They claim that the college violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law, which says that meetings may remain closed ‘unless the students have specifically consented to or requested the disclosure of such matters.’

‘This is the first time [Evans] was going in for possible expulsion or suspension,’ Leavitt said. ‘That’s huge, and I wanted to cover it because I thought that students should know one: what’s going to happen to their student government president, and two: what he was being charged with.’

Two reporters from the University of Maryland at College Park student newspaper, The Diamondback, were refused access to a Senior Council meeting in late February. The council organizes commencement activities and was debating a proposal about which student organization would choose the speaker.

In a Diamondback article, graduate student adviser Amanda Niskode said that she was unsure if council members would feel free to speak with reporters present. Backed by Student Affairs Chief of Staff Brooke Supple, Niskode closed the meeting. Niskode said that because the council was not funded by student activity fees, it was not subject to the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

Diamondback editors argued that because the council receives state funds through the university’s office of student affairs, the law is applicable. Moreover, the only exemptions to the law are for discussions of personnel matters, litigation and business negotiations ‘ none of which are discussed by a social committee.

The Diamondback has not yet decided whether to pursue legal action.

At Michigan’s Oakland University, the student editor of The Oakland Post was denied entry into an unannounced board of trustees meeting in January.

Editor Ann Zaniewski learned of the meeting when she saw a trustee enter the student union at an odd hour. She said she was told that it was a budget briefing and no decisions were made.

Afterward, the Post published stories about the closed meeting and gathered 1,201 signatures for a petition that asked the board to comply with Michigan Open Meetings Act. The staff filed a complaint but the county prosecutor’s office declined to press charges.

The board has since threatened to sue both the Post and specific reporters.

‘If The Oakland [Post] publishes another article stating or implying that the board has violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act, or files another false complaint, I will recommend the immediate commencement of legal proceedings against The Oakland [Post] … and against those individuals responsible, personally,’ wrote university general counsel Victor Zambardi.

The Post retained media lawyer Herschel Fink, who filed suit against the board for violating the open-meetings act. Fink is also considering filing a civil rights suit in U.S. District Court over the board’s attempt to muzzle the paper by threatening it with lawsuits.