MICHIGAN ‘ A state court of appeals in August rejected an appeal from the Oakland Post, Oakland University’s student paper, to force university officials to reveal details from a private meeting between members of the board of trustees and lobbyists.
But a prominent journalism academic said the court did not address the issue the student newspaper had wanted answered: whether Michigan public university governing boards are constitutionally exempt from the state’s open meetings act.
“The appellate decision has extremely limited application,” said Jane Briggs-Bunting, former Post adviser and current director of the journalism school at Michigan State University. “The appeals court said that under the particular facts of the case, the session with the lobbyist was not a meeting.”
In an opinion issued Aug. 30, the appellate panel based its findings on a 1999 Michigan Supreme Court decision, Federated Publications, Inc. v. Michigan State University Bd. of Trustees.
That case, which stemmed from Michigan State University’s refusal to furnish records from a presidential search, established state precedent allowing higher education governing bodies more latitude in making decisions without public access if such access would “unconstitutionally infringe the governing board’s power to supervise the institution.”
Because public universities have a special status under the state constitution, the court said they could not be subject to some provisions of the state freedom of information laws.
The appeals court found parallels between the two cases in dismissing the appeal.
“In Federated Publications, the presidential selection committee meetings were not ‘formal’ board meetings,” according to the decision. “Similarly, here, plaintiff does not argue that the defendant’s meeting with its lobbyist firm was a ‘formal’ session. Instead, because the meeting was informal, the Legislature is constitutionally precluded from requiring compliance with [the Open Meetings Act].”
But Briggs-Bunting said the court ducked the issue of whether university governing boards are exempt from all provisions of the state’s open meetings act.
“That’s the question we had hoped to resolve,” she said.
Post adviser Holly Gilbert said the decision baffled the newspaper’s staff.
“It’s frustrating,” Gilbert said. “We’re kind of scratching our heads, wondering what the courts are thinking.”
Gilbert said that the university does not foster press freedoms on campus.
“The paper can’t serve its function if it can’t have access to meetings and financial information,” she said. “Press freedom doesn’t seem to be very high on this administration’s agenda.”
But director of media relations Ted Montgomery said the university is committed to open access.
“The only thing I would say is to reiterate that the Oakland University board of trustees has always and will continue to conduct the business of the university in open meetings,” Montgomery said.
Roqaya Eshmawe, current editor in chief of the Post, said the newspaper has access to monthly board meetings and covers these meetings on a regular basis.
Eshmawe said gaining access to certain closed meetings is important because reporters need to know the reasoning behind controversial budget decisions to better inform readers of the impact of those decisions.
Representatives from the Post filed suit in Oakland Circuit Court in November 2003 to protest a closed-door meeting held between members of the board of trustees and lobbyists to discuss potential fundraising options in the wake of government spending cuts.
Newspaper staff members said they believed access to the meeting was mandated under the Michigan Open Meetings Act.
After the court found in favor of the school on Oct. 30, 2003, the editors of the Post appealed.
Student newspaper staffers are not planning on appealing the decision, said Post lawyer Marshall Fink.
It may take another set of circumstances for the court to make a broader decision concerning university boards and the Open Meetings Act, Briggs-Bunting said.
“The college and commercial press need to be very conscious of covering governing boards and the closed pre-meetings that seem to be occurring with alarming regularity across the state,” she said. “That’s the issue that needs to be addressed. With a different set of facts, it likely will be.”
Case: The Oakland Sail v. Oakland University Bd. of Trustees, No.252391, 2005 WL 2086134 (Mich. App. Aug. 30, 2005) (unpublished)