Court rules against Mich. college newspaper in open-meetings case

MICHIGAN—- A state district court ruled last week that the OaklandUniversity board of trustees did not violate the Michigan Open Meetings Act whenit held a meeting in secret.Judge Richard D. Kuhn ruled Thursday thatimposing the open-meetings law on the board of trustees would infringe on theboard’s constitutional right to govern the public university’s internal affairs.The court also said that state university boards are not subject to theopen-meetings act.The school’s student newspaper, the OaklandPost, sued the board in March after student journalists were not informedabout or allowed into a January board meeting in which trustees discussed statebudget cuts. Rebecca Wyatt, editor in chief of the newspaper, said a newspaper staff memberdiscovered the meeting by spotting university board members on campus when therewas no regular meeting scheduled. Wyatt said the staffer followed the board members toa conference room but was told the meeting was a “private session.” Thenewspaper later discovered the board was discussing budget cuts, Wyatt said. “It goes against everything we believe,” Wyatt said. “Democracy diesbehind closed doors. That’s what’s happening here.”The OaklandPost is rallying support from other media organizations to appeal thedecision, but Wyatt said she was unsure whether the newspaper will continue thefight. The university, however, maintains that there is nothing to fightfor.”Absolutely no business at the university is conducted in private,”said Ted Montgomery, a university spokesman. “We’re pleased that Judge Kuhn’sdecision confirmed what has been our position all along.”Montgomery saidthe closed meeting was purely informational and no decisions were made. He saidhe could not comment on why board members wanted to keep the meetingprivate.Kuhn cited a 1999 Michigan Supreme Court decision in the court’sruling. In the 1999 case, the supreme court ruled that the open-meetings actdid not apply to Michigan State University’s board of trustees when it met todiscuss the school’s search for a new president because public access to themeetings could hamper the school’s ability to attract the best candidates. Thesupreme court also cited a state constitutional provision that university boardshave autonomy to govern the internal affairs of the school.Referring tothe 1999 decision, Kuhn wrote that a meeting about state budget cuts qualifiedas “internal affairs” and was thus exempt from the open-meetingsact.Herschel Fink, attorney for the Oakland Post, said Kuhn’sinterpretation of the 1999 supreme court decision was overly broad.”Hetook a very expansive view of a very narrow decision,” Fink said. “Theuniversity is saying they have a constitutional right to ignore theopen-meetings act. That’s wrong.”But with support pouring in from otherstate media organizations, Fink remains optimistic.”This is just onecounty judge,” Fink said. “It’s a bad precedent to set, but it only affectsthis small university.”The newspaper will decide this week whether toappeal.

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