Virginia student government leader pushes through stronger campus FOI rules

When it comes to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, just call Jhett Nelson the Enforcer.

The College of William & Mary junior singlehandedly pushed the FOIA Compliance Act through the state-supported college’s student assembly in February after noticing a general lackadaisical attitude among his colleagues adherence to the law.

“In the past our body … has had problems following FOIA,” said Nelson, a former senator. “I had heard a threat of a lawsuit because the senate was going into closed session for random things, to talk about things that weren’t actually legal, and finally one of the [student] newspapers called them on it.”

Nelson said he began researching the state FOI law and reading opinions from the Virginia FOIA Advisory Council, which issues advisory opinions on FOIA compliance. He said he found several opinions from the council indicating that student governments that receive state money are considered public bodies under the state freedom of information law.

“Basically, when I had that, that’s when I started looking into what we needed to do, what we weren’t following, and started drafting the bill,” he said.

The FOIA Compliance Act, which passed unanimously in the student assembly on April 13, mandates that a student assembly officer ensures that all FOIA requirements-including holding open meetings and releasing government records-are being met.

Nelson said the compliance officer duties will go to the director of internal affairs. The newly confirmed director of internal affairs, Victor Sulkowski, was a “big supporter” of the proposed legislation, Nelson said.

“Currently we have a very conscious student assembly. That hasn’t always been the case,” Sulkowski said. “If we ever were to regress in the future where people aren’t complying, this is a built-in safeguard against possible conflicts with the [FOI] law.”

After initial trepidation, other student government officials realized the necessity of the FOIA Compliance Act as well, Nelson said.

“I think the initial reaction was, ‘We really have to follow all this?'” he said “But once they realized it was Virginia law, [the reaction] was pretty positive.”

Nelson’s senate term is up, and his new title-director of governmental affairs-will find him in unfamiliar territory: working as a liaison between his fellow students and the cities of Williamsburg and Richmond.

But if any government officials in Williamsburg or Richmond aren’t being accountable to the public under the FOI law, Nelson will know what to do.

“I definitely will,” Nelson said. “They’ve actually been pretty good. As far as I can tell, they’ve been following the law.”

SPLC View: While the impact of William and Mary’s new FOI Compliance Act is limited to that campus, it is, sadly, so rare for us to hear cases of student government officials agreeing to willingly comply with freedom of information laws – let alone embrace them – that we had to acknowledge Nelson’s efforts and send him our official SPLC “Snaps!” We won’t hold our breath, but it would be wonderful to see other student government leaders, many of whom will go on to become local, state or federal government officials, take a similar stand and acknowledge – in words and practice – that the best government truly is an open one.