Florida student news website files lawsuit against university for access to student government hearings

FLORIDA — A student-run news organization at the University of Central Florida is requesting that a circuit judge grant immediate access to student government hearings this week that will decide whether a candidate for student body president violated campaign regulations.

KnightNews.com filed an emergency complaint for a temporary injunction to require the university’s board of trustees to open the student government Election Commission hearings to the public. The closed commission hearings are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in the Circuit Court of the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Orange County, Florida, argues that the student government decided to apply the state’s open-meetings law to its Election Commission meetings, and hearings of the commission have been open to the public in the past. Still, the school has not provided an exemption to the law that would justify closing the meetings, according to the lawsuit.

University representatives did not immediately respond to the Student Press Law Center’s requests for comment.

“The public has an indisputable interest in continuing to observe the Commission’s proceedings so as to hold its current and prospective government officials accountable,” the lawsuit argues.

In addition to the temporary injunction, KnightNews.com also requests a declaratory judgement to affirm that the university’s student government meetings must be open to the public and subject to the state’s Sunshine Law, which establishes a basic right of access to most meetings of local and state governing bodies. The news site also requests reasonable attorneys’ fees.

According to an affidavit included in the lawsuit, Derek Lowe, digital news director at KnightNews.com, confirmed that the university would hold closed Election Commission hearings for Jacob Milich, a candidate for the university’s Student Government Association. The lawsuit states that not opening the hearings to the public would cause “irreparable harm” to KnightNews.com.

In an interview, Lowe said he and the fellow student journalists at KnightNews.com were outraged when they found out the meetings, which will determine if Milich is guilty of prohibited campaign activity and decide whether he should be punished, would not be open to the public.

“We think that UCF is abusing Florida Sunshine Law, and it’s an absolute disgrace,” Lowe said, adding that election commission meetings have historically been open to the public.

Closing the hearings teaches student leaders to operate government in secrecy instead of with transparency, he said.

Lowe said opening the meeting to the public would ensure the hearings are a fair process — for both the accused and the accuser. He said the public has a right to know what goes on in these hearings, particularly in this case, where Milich could serve as student body president and as a member of the university’s Board of Trustees.

The lawsuit states that a student body statute requires all student government meetings to be subject to Florida’s Sunshine Law. The lawsuit argues that the Sunshine Law does not have a exception that would justify the “sudden and unprecedented” closing of the hearings.

“We don’t know why all of a sudden the university wanted to close these,” Lowe said.

The lawsuit argues that the university may cite the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal student privacy law, as justification for closing the hearings, as schools can withhold educational records under FERPA. Yet, according to Florida statute, just because something is exempted from the public records law does not exempt it from the state’s open-meeting law.

In an affidavit included in the lawsuit, Nicklas Bajema, the former Supervisor of Elections for the student government, said he oversaw at least four election violation hearings — all of which were open to the public. As part of his duties, he said he was instructed to comply with the state’s Sunshine Law and posted public notice of the hearings.

“There was at no point any question that the public and press would be barred from attending election violation hearings,” Bajema said of his time in the position. “On the contrary, it was encouraged for the press and public to attend election violation hearings.”

Bejema goes on to write that he has never attended or heard of any student government meetings being closed to the public.

KnightNews.com previously filed a lawsuit against the university in 2013 for allegedly violating open meeting laws and the state’s public record law. The lawsuit argued that public record requests had been overly redacted and reporters had been shut out of hearings they thought should be open to the public.

A Circuit Court judge sided with the university in the case, ruling that the school properly withheld public records under FERPA.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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