Wisconsin students ask attorney general to rule on whether student governments are subject to sunshine laws

WISCONSIN — Student journalists in Wisconsin are asking thestate attorney general to clarify whether university student governmentorganizations are subject to the state’s sunshine laws.

Frustrated by student government officials’ attempts to stonewallingthe press, three students from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee wrotethe 147-page letter explaining their view that student governments statewideshould be open to the public like all other government agencies because theyallocate millions of dollars and have statutory authority to make universitypolicy.

“We’re just trying to shed light on a dim segment of Wisconsingovernment,” said Jonathan Anderson, who worked with fellow students JesseManser and Matthew Schultz.

Anderson is also editor-in-chief of the UWM Post, an independentnewspaper on campus that clashed with the student government over travel recordsin 2008. Student Association officials initially said they would release therecords about a March 2008 trip to New York City, but later refused and said theorganization was not subject to the state open records law.

Also in the spring of 2008, reporters from the on-campus broadcast programPantherVision were barred from student government hearing about electionviolations. A student government official called security to remove thereporters after they refused to leave, though they were eventually allowed tostay after they explained their rights.

Those two incidents inspired the project, Anderson said. The students didstatewide research to find out whether other student media organizationsencountered similar problems. They examined the student government bylaws ofevery four-year institution in the state for mentions of open governmentprinciples, and also did extensive case law research about how sunshine lawshave been applied to “quasi-governmental” agencies in thepast.

They found many inconsistencies between different campuses, along withgeneral confusion among students and administrators about how open governmentlaws relate to the student government organizations.

Mark Zoromski, who teaches broadcast journalism classes at UW-Milwaukee andadvised the project, said he was inspired by how much work the students put intothe project.

“They just really believed in what they were doing, and they did agreat job,” he said. “Hopefully they’re going to force studentgovernment to be more transparent in the future.”

Zoromski said they believe it is clear student governments should be heldto the same standards of transparency as other government agencies.

“Student governments in the state of Wisconsin administer more than$25 million a year worth of public money — and yet they are in some casestrying to operate in secret, and there’s no clear definitive ruling thatsays they can’t operate in secret,” Zoromski said.

The students worked on the legal interpretation request as an independentstudy project during the fall semester. Anderson and Zoromski met with assistantattorneys general in Madison on April 15 to present the letter and discussprocedure.

“It was a pretty quick meeting, but we were happy to get some timewith them so they realize how important this issue is,” Andersonsaid.

Anderson said it could take as long as a year to hear back from theattorney general’s office since the legal issue is complex.