FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 10, 2016
Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, SPLC Executive Director
firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-785-5450
In a brief filed Wednesday, the Student Press Law Center and leading news-media organizations ask the Michigan Supreme Court to take on a case challenging the legality of secret “pre-meeting meetings” where trustees of Michigan universities discuss public business behind closed doors.
The case involves a lawsuit by the Detroit Free Press and by the parent company of the Lansing State Journal, challenging the longstanding position of Michigan’s public universities that they are exempt from the Michigan Open Meetings Act, which requires governmental decision-making bodies to deliberate in public.
A Michigan trial court ruled in June 2015 that – although the Michigan constitution requires university boards to hold their “formal” meetings in public – it is legal for board members to discuss official business in secret “informal” meetings so long as the actual votes are taken in public. The state Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in April 2016.
The newspapers are asking the Michigan Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s decision. In a brief prepared by Washington, D.C., attorney Michael F. Smith and joined by the National Press Club, the Michigan Press Association, and five Michigan television stations, the SPLC urges the Court to accept the case.
The rulings were based on an erroneous 1999 Michigan Supreme Court ruling, Federated Publications, that effectively declared Michigan’s public universities to be an independent fourth branch of government impervious to legislative regulation – a ruling that Wednesday’s brief describes as “practically unworkable.” The brief encourages the Court to revisit and limit the 1999 decision in light of universities’ well-documented abuse of their judicially granted autonomy.
Wednesday’s amicus brief notes that the “formal” public meetings of Michigan university boards are brief and uninformative, because all of the substantive discussion takes place outside public view, preventing the public from evaluating the performance of board members or understanding how decisions are made: “[T]he Regents routinely retreat behind closed doors to consider innocuous issues (such as ‘bicentennial planning’) that seem to have no reasonable need for private discussion. Worse, they use generic descriptions to mask private discussion of tremendous public import.”
“Public universities talk a good game about producing civically engaged students, but civic engagement starts at home. Making the community’s most important decisions in secret back-room meetings is irreconcilable with engaged citizenship,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “You can’t put on your ‘government’ hat only when being a government agency is convenient and take it off when you want to avoid accountability. Accepting state money and state authority means being answerable to the public for how you use that money and authority. It is the height of arrogance for a board of well-connected executives to tell the taxpayers of Michigan that how governmental decisions get made is none of their business, and the courts should set that injustice right.”
Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Student Press Law Center is an IRS 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 1974 to provide free legal assistance and training tailored to the needs of student journalists and journalism educators at the college and K-12 levels nationwide. Information about the work of the SPLC and an array of free legal research materials can be found at www.splc.org.