SUNSHINE WEEK: State laws dictate access to student, faculty meetings

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A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

Rumors have been flying around your community college campus that admission requirements for new students could be lowered to boost freshman enrollment, which some professors say would reduce the academic quality of the school.

The decision rests with the college senate — a governing body of students, faculty and administrators. You report about the college senate for your student newspaper and learn of a special meeting tomorrow to address a personnel complaint.

When you show up to cover the meeting, the doors are locked, but you can hear voices inside. A sign posted on the door states that the group is meeting in a closed executive session, because the identities of personnel would be named.

No one answers the door after you knock and wait, so you decide to give up and head back to the newsroom without a story. The next day, the university releases a statement announcing curriculum changes.

What should you have done? Can a student or faculty government really close its meetings to the public?

While the above situation may not be real, many student journalists in both high school and college have encountered similar situations.

In 2005 at Hostos Community College in New York, a student attempted to access a closed meeting of the College Senate — a board composed of faculty, students and administrators. During a closed session, the senate approved recommendations to change the college curriculum during a secret vote.

A court later ruled that because the City University of New York’s Board of Trustees — which oversees the College Senate — is subject to open meetings laws, so is the College Senate.

Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said arguments similar to the Hostos ruling could be made at other public institutions, as well as that any body that distributes public funds — including student fees — generally are subject to state open meetings regulations.

Unless there is case precedent in your state, there is no clear-cut answer to whether student and faculty government meetings may be closed. A 2003 survey conducted by the Student Press Law Center found that few guidelines exist to indicate or predict whether student government meetings would be covered under a state’s open meetings statute.

But student journalists — in high school and college — can follow some guidelines to encourage access to student and faculty governing bodies.

Davis said when a student journalist is being denied access to a student or faculty government meeting at a public school, the burden of providing reason to close a meeting should rest with the government, not the journalist.

“The only way that you can prove it [should be] closed is if you can provide a statute [that allows for closure],” Davis said.

But at many high schools and colleges, student and faculty committees still attempt to close meetings without clear reasons, said Davis, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri.

“There’s typically some sort balderdash offered that is remotely legal,” he said.

Davis said that if a reporter is ever denied access to a student or faculty government meeting, they should demand legal reasoning and case precedent for the closed session.

“If indeed that legal justification is provided, the reporter must assess whether it is a legitimate use of the exception to throw them out,” Davis said.

Davis said the best way to know whether a closure is justified is to review and understand their state’s open records laws before covering meetings — regardless of whether it involves students, faculty or any public official.

While parts of some meetings can be closed legally, such as some instances of discussing personnel matters or legal proceedings, the reporter should always demand justification for the closure from the student or faculty government, Davis said.

“Because a personnel member’s name is coming up doesn’t mean it’s exempt,” he said. “If [reporters] shrug their shoulders they are sending a message up and down the line that [governments] can close anything they want.”

Even at private high schools and universities — while there may be no legal recourse under open meetings laws — a student reporter could make the argument for open meetings with campus governments as a matter of keeping the public informed, Davis said.

“I look at it as a matter of good policy,” Davis said.

Always write stories about any access problems your reporters may encounter, Davis said. Publicizing instances of closed government sparks debate on campus about what officials may be hiding.

“Raise as much Cain about it as you can,” Davis said. “Write about it and draw public interest.”

To learn more about open meetings and open records laws in your state, visit the Access to Meetings, Records and Places page at the Student Press Law Center Web site.

By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer