University of Wisconsin student governments subject to state open meetings law

WISCONSIN — Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen issuedan opinion Dec. 17 that provides guidelines for determining whether state openmeetings and public records laws are applicable to student governments in theUniversity of Wisconsin system.

The opinion was issued in response to a request filed by University ofWisconsin – Milwaukee journalism students who asked the attorney general inApril to determine the applicability of the laws to these student bodies afterhaving difficulty accessing information.

Though the opinion did not state that any specific student organization inthe University of Wisconsin system was subject to the open meetings law, theattorney general’s guidelines explain that organizations that have “sharedgovernance,” or the ability to exercise government authority — such asUniversity of Wisconsin student governments — will be considered a governmentalbody and subject to the law, said Robert Dreps, an attorney with Godfrey andKahn in Madison, Wisc., who reviewed the student’s request for an attorneygeneral opinion.

“The framework he provided makes clear that those organizations that do infact exercise shared governance authority in the university system are subjectto the open meetings law,” Dreps said.

Jonathan Anderson, the special projects editor for the UWM Post andone of the students who filed the request, said he views the opinion as asuccess and feels it will have a positive effect on the Post’s coverageof student governments.

“It gives us an argument when we make a records request to a University ofWisconsin – Milwaukee student government. We hope that it makes the processeasier when requesting records,” he said.

While the opinion of the attorney general is not binding on the Universityof Wisconsin system, Dreps said it does carry official weight and will behelpful to the student journalists.

“Especially with state governmental entities it is very rare for any to notfollow the guidance of the attorney general,” he said. “The attorney general isdesignated by the legislature to interpret and advise on the requirements of therecords and meetings laws.”

The amount of authority and responsibility a student organization has isalso a factor in determining whether it is subject to the state’s open meetingsand open records laws, as does the purpose for which it’s meeting.

“The significance of this is to ensure public oversight, but in particularstudent oversight over how their segregated fees are spent. Wisconsin givesstudents substantial authority over substantial funds,” Dreps said.

According to a press release distributed by Anderson, “during the 2007-2008academic year, student governments at UW System campuses budgeted to allocate aminimum combined total of $25,331,296.82 in public funds.”

Anderson said he is pleased with the attorney general’s thoroughopinion.

“We hope that is makes the process easier in requesting records andensuring that the meetings of student governments are open,” he said.

By Julia Chapman, SPLC staff writer