MICHIGAN –– Student journalists got an early Halloween spook when a state district court ruled on Oct. 30 that the Oakland University board of trustees did not violate the Michigan Open Meetings Act when it held a meeting in secret.
“It’s scary,” said Rebecca Wyatt, editor in chief of the student-run Oakland Post. “Democracy dies behind closed doors. That’s what is happening here.”
Judge Richard D. Kuhn ruled that imposing the open-meetings law on the board of trustees would infringe on the board’s constitutional right to govern the public university’s internal affairs. He also said that state university boards are not subject to the open-meetings act.
The Oakland Post sued the board in March after student journalists were not informed about or allowed into a January board meeting in which trustees discussed state budget cuts.
Wyatt said a Post staff member discovered the meeting by spotting university board members on campus when there was no regular meeting scheduled. Wyatt said the staffer followed the board members to a conference room but was told the meeting was a “private session.” The newspaper later discovered the board was discussing budget cuts, Wyatt said.
“It goes against everything we believe,” Wyatt said.
The Oakland Post is rallying support from other media organizations to appeal the decision.
The university, however, maintains that there is nothing to fight for.
“Absolutely no business at the university is conducted in private,” said Ted Montgomery, a university spokesman. “We’re pleased that Judge Kuhn’s decision confirmed what has been our position all along.”
Kuhn cited a 1999 Michigan Supreme Court decision in the court’s ruling. In the 1999 case, the supreme court ruled that the open-meetings act did not apply to Michigan State University’s board of trustees when it met to discuss the school’s search for a new president because public access to the meetings could hamper the school’s ability to attract the best candidates. The supreme court also cited a state constitutional provision that university boards have autonomy to govern the internal affairs of the school.
Referring to the 1999 decision, Kuhn wrote that a meeting about state budget cuts qualified as “internal affairs” and was thus exempt from the open-meetings act.
Herschel Fink, attorney for the Oakland Post, said Kuhn’s interpretation of the 1999 supreme court decision was overly broad.
“He took a very expansive view of a very narrow decision,” Fink said.
The Oakland Post appealed shortly after the decision and expects to be back in court in the next few months.
CASE: Oakland Post v. Bd. of Trustees of Oakland University, No. 03 048542 CZ (Cir. Ct. County of Oakland Oct. 30, 2003)