FLORIDA — A student news organization filed its third lawsuit against the University of Central Florida last month after the student government budget committee met and discussed the organization’s multi-million dollar budget in secret and did not comply with open records requests, according to the complaint.
Florida attorney Justin Hemlepp filed the lawsuit May 23 on behalf of KnightNews.com, a student-run news organization at UCF that alleges the university violated the Florida Public Records Act and the state’s sunshine law.
The lawsuit states the Activity and Service Fee Budget Committee, established by the Student Government Association, met after the fall semester ended and students were forced to leave their dorm rooms. Because the committee reportedly met after the dorms were emptied, a student who wanted to attend the meeting would have had to stay in a hotel room or make other arrangements, according to the complaint.
The complaint states the university violated the state’s sunshine law because it held its budget committee hearings outside of the designated school year. The Florida Public Records Act states all authority meetings of a state agency are to be open to the public. The complaint goes on to assert the student government is considered “part of the university” and must adhere to the state’s open government laws.
In the lawsuit, Hemlepp argues sunshine laws are violated when public meetings are held at “a time or place that unreasonably restricts the board or commission’s constituency’s access.” The law states that restricting access to the public amounts to holding a secret meeting and is prohibited.
The complaint also alleges the university failed to disclose requested budget records and didn’t provide a reason for leaving the requests unfulfilled.
Included in the lawsuit are email exchanges between Michael Williams, Knight News’ student government reporter; Bridgette Snedeker, the editor of Knight News; and the UCF Office of Student Involvement which document that the requests were made and the university acknowledged them.
The budget records the organization requested deal with the transaction of student government’s official business and should be available to the public under the state’s public records act, according to the complaint.
In Graham v. Haridopolos, the Florida Supreme Court stated that university tuition and fees are “unquestionably” state funds.
The university’s student government handles a $19 million budget, according to the organization’s website.
Florida’s Public Records Act includes a clause stating public records keepers must allow records to be inspected and copied “by any person desiring to do so.”
“(The lawsuit) is basically on the premise that news delayed is news denied,” Williams said.
He said days after the lawsuit was filed, the university handed over financial records the news outlet requested, however, the documents were redacted.
“(UCF) take(s) the position that any piece of paper laying under a bench on campus with a student name on it, they have to redact,” Hemlepp said.
In 2013, Knight News filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming the school violated the state’s public records and open meetings laws because they held secret hearings for hazing and other student conduct violations. The trial court concurred with the university on 16 of the 17 counts. A state appellate judge said in an opinion released in April that trial courts incorrectly permitted the university to withhold the names of student government officials accused or charged with misconduct. The lawsuit has not been resolved.
In a motion to dismiss filed May 3, the university declared student government an “educational learning laboratory” and stated that “a student government is not a real Florida government.” In the motion, the university cites a friend-of-the-court brief in which all 12 state universities in Florida joined an ongoing lawsuit surrounding these issues.
Hemlepp said he believes these are cases of first impression that will potentially have a significant impact if similar questions arise elsewhere.
“Opinions issued in these cases will be influential in other states where these issues come up,” Hemlepp said. “We’re very dedicated to making sure the right decision is made.”
Additionally, the most recent complaint alleges the student government squelched public comment at the student senate meeting in April concerning the budget, which was passed. Williams, Knight News’ student government reporter, and another individual wanted to speak at the meeting, but no open forum was posted on the agenda, Williams said.
He said the lack of an open forum was unusual at a meeting where people typically have the opportunity to speak every Thursday night.
A motion for an open forum was made but denied after a vote, Williams said.
“(Knight News is) not asking for anything else except for students to be able to speak their mind on an $18.6 million budget before it’s passed,” Williams said.
According to Florida state statute, the public should be given the “reasonable opportunity” to comment on propositions before a board or commission, the complaint states. Additionally, UCF’s senate rules include a place for “open forum” under the daily order.
Knight News is seeking a permanent mandatory order from the court instructing UCF to allow public comment in accordance with the law at student senate meetings. The news organization is also requesting the court to find that UCF violated sunshine laws and void any action taken at the budget committee meetings.
“It’s all about fighting for transparency,” Williams said.
The University of Central Florida declined to comment for this story.
SPLC staff writer Kaelynn Knoernschild can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318.
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