They are elected. They often have the power to set policies on issues that directly affect their fellow citizens. They represent their constituents before other public officials and bodies. They decide how to distribute — and in some cases whether to raise — public funding, sometimes amounting to millions of dollars. And yet, it is not always clear whether the elected student government at some state colleges and universities must meet in public or whether they are permitted to conduct official business in secret, behind closed doors.
Whether it is determining how to allocate mandatory student fees collected by a university or setting policy on issues that affect the daily lives of those they represent, the student government at a public college or university can function much like other publicly elected governing bodies. And just as the local city paper would be remiss if it failed to send reporters to cover the meetings of its city council, student newspapers understand their responsibility to their readers to report on the proceedings of their student government.Unfortunately, while the city paper reporter generally will not have to think twice about gaining access to the city council, student reporters too frequently find the door to their student government’s meeting locked. And in some cases it is not altogether clear whether a legal key, in the form of an open meetings law, will open that door.
As of 2010, research by Student Press Law Center showed that there were few guidelines to indicate or predict whether student government meetings would be covered under a state’s open meetings statute.
In general, open meetings laws, which are found in all 50 states and theDistrict of Columbia, provide legal authority that allows the public to attend, photograph, record or broadcast the meetings of “governmental” or “public bodies,” terms whose specific definitions may or may not include a student government. While their general purpose is the same, open meetings laws vary by state and can change as courts and attorneys general issue new opinions and legislatures revise or rewrite their statutes. Indeed, attorneys general instates whose open meeting laws contained fairly similar language nevertheless have come down on opposite sides when asked whether their law applies to student government proceedings. (While the opinion of an attorney general is not binding law, it can often persuade a court.)
While the process of determining your right of access can be frustrating in the absence of clear and stable guidelines, there are a few basic ideas to keep in mind. Although open meetings laws do not generally apply to private colleges and universities (there may be exceptions tied to receipt of state funding),almost all open meetings laws include provisions that apply to the top governing body of a public college-level institution, such as a board of regents or trustees. In many states whose sunshine laws do not specifically mention colleges or universities, the state’s courts or attorney general’s office has issued an opinion saying that the open meetings law extends to institutions of higher education.
In formulating an argument for access, journalists should look very carefully at the relationship between the student government and, for example, the board of regents. Determine the legal source for the student government’s existence. Some student governments can trace their creation back to an official act of the board of regents. Establishing such a direct link should add considerable weight to an argument that the student government is a state-sanctioned governmental body.
It is also important to look at the student government agency’s powers and duties. If it can be shown that the board of regents has delegated to a student government a power it normally would reserve for itself, such as the allocation and distribution of money collected by the school or actual policy-making authority, a court might be inclined to rule that the student government functions as an official arm of the government. In states whose laws cover “advisory bodies,” even something less than decision-making authority might be enough to turn student government into a public body.
Only the statutes in California, Nevada and Washington list student governments in the category of public bodies that must be open. Despite the fact that student governments are not mentioned in the other 47 states, there is statutory language in most of the open meetings laws that arguably encompasses student government meetings. For example, statutes that expressly cover”committees” or “subunits” of a public body usually will open the meetings of student governments, especially where they have been delegated some decision-making authority from the board of regents. Examples of states with this type of statute are Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, NewHampshire, Ohio and Vermont.
Often a statute will open student governments by covering the meetings of all bodies that are supported by or expend public money or tax revenue. Statutes with this wording can be found in the following states: Alabama, Arkansas,Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana,Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Virginia.
Unfortunately, even though a particular state’s law might contain the wording mentioned above, there is no guarantee that the student government meetings will be open. While the trend seems to be toward openness and public opinion generally favors holding student governments accountable for their actions, some of these statutes are imprecise. In addition, even if student governments are found to be “public bodies” that must comply with an open meetings law, there may nevertheless be a specific exemption in the statute that would allow them to close an occasional meeting to discuss a particular topic.(For example, the right to close meetings to discuss “personnel matters,””adjudicatory proceedings,” or “legally confidential” matters are common exemptions.) A common limit on these exceptions is that the meeting be open and the purpose of the closed meeting announced before going into closed session.
Obviously, the time to become acquainted with your state’s open meetings law and how it works is before you are kicked out of the meeting you have been assigned to cover. Every newsroom should have a copy of its state open meetings law available for its staff. If yours does not, you can contact the StudentPress Law Center, your state press association or a local attorney to help you obtain one. Additionally, the National Freedom of Information Coalition Web site(www.nfoic.org) contains links to many state open meetings laws.
Even where a law does not clearly provide for access — and particularly at private schools where a state’s open meetings law is generally of no use –strong non-legal arguments can be made that students should have the right to know what their elected student government is doing. It is often said that the best government is an open government. When student reporters are barred from a student government meeting, let the readers know. They are the ones ultimately harmed when they are denied information about how their money is spent and how policies that will affect them are formulated. Encourage them to demand to know what their elected representatives have hidden from their constituents. And consider contacting the local media and perhaps the alumni association to let them know of your problems in gaining access. In our experience, persistence pays off.
- A State-By-State Guide to Covering Student Government Meetings- Note: As most states have never specifically ruled on the applicability of open meetings laws to student government meetings, the following state-by-state analysis represents the Student Press Law Center's best judgment of how a court might decide the issue.