Georgia colleges may close some disciplinary hearings

GEORGIA — Public colleges in Georgia can close disciplinary hearings, but don’t have to, according to a letter from the state attorney general’s office clarifying whether a new law mandates their closure.

Up until recently, disciplinary hearings were open to the public, the result of a 1993 Georgia Supreme Court ruling. After a change to Georgia’s Open Meetings Law back in April, the University of Georgia started closing the hearings, said Ed Morales, The Red & Black’s adviser.

The law allows meetings to be closed when records exempt from public disclosure are being discussed. Educational records protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act are exempt from disclosure, and UGA has justified the closure of hearings on that ground.

At the request of UGA’s legal affairs office, attorneys from the state’s attorney general’s office clarified what the April changes to the law said in regards to closing the hearings.

The opinion from the attorney general’s office says that the changes to the law do not allow “a blanket closure of all disciplinary hearings,” and says instead that each case must be handled individually. If a hearing can be held openly without revealing personally identifiable information about the student, it should remain open, according to the letter.

For instance, if a student does not attend the student disciplinary hearing, then that meeting must remain open for all parts that do not disclose “personally identifiable information.”

Georgia was the only state to previously allow journalists to attend those meetings and access the disciplinary documents. Without access to these disciplinary meetings, The Red & Black’s coverage of the Office of Student Conduct is suffering because they cannot cover what is happening, Morales said.

“We used to be able to attend the meeting but we can’t attend them,” Morales said. “Now we don’t know when they are. They don’t publicize them.”

The Red & Black used the information from the meetings to show discrepancies in the university’s disciplinary process, Morales said.

“We used it to show if there was an inequity in the way punishment was being doled out by the university,” he said. “There were instance where students would do the same thing and they would get different punishments. It was never a sense of gathering up information on students to find out what they had done wrong but more or less a policy check to make sure the university was doing things right.”

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer. Contact McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.