Colorado State newspaper crusades for open meetings, greater transparency from university

COLORADO — Colorado State University’s student government may have broken state transparency laws by trying to kick student reporters out of the student body president’s impeachment hearing. The incident adds to an ongoing perceived lack of transparency from the university’s student government and administration.

Erin Douglas, the editor-in-chief of The Rocky Mountain Collegian, spoke at the Sept. 13 meeting to dissuade the Associated Students of Colorado State University in Fort Collins from kicking out the media. She later published a letter from the editor arguing that doing so would have been illegal under the state’s Sunshine Law.

“The student body deserves to know why their student body president might be impeached,” she wrote.

The Collegian reported that although the senate chose not to go into the closed session because of her speech, they debated what to do with legal advice from the university’s General Counsel. The university claimed, contrary to Douglas, that ASCSU is not a state public body and thus is not subject to the law requiring state public bodies to hold open meetings. It also claimed that they may actually be legally required to keep the meeting closed because it is a personnel matter.

Connor Cheadle, a student senator who signed the impeachment petition, told The Collegian ASCSU wasn’t trying to hide anything. “We don’t know what we can or we can’t say,” he said. “We don’t know what we can express because we don’t know if it’s legal or not.”

The Collegian has obtained legal counsel from the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, which sent a letter to the General Counsel’s office Sept. 28 urging them to advise ASCSU that it would be illegal for them to go into a closed executive session for an impeachment hearing.

The coalition has previously argued that ASCSU is indeed a state public body by citing a 2003 Denver District Court ruling that entities at public universities meet the definition for state public bodies when they fulfill two criteria: 

  • They must be a “formally constituted body of any state agency or authority,” which the coalition said is the case with ASCSU because they are authorized by the CSU Board of Governors. 
  • They must “advise the Board of Governors or make decisions on its behalf.” ASCSU allocates more than $2 million of student fees annually.

The transparency law has an exception allowing personnel matters to be discussed in a private session, but elected officials like student body president Josh Silva don’t qualify for that exemption.

Ultimately, ASCSU kept the meeting open and went through the motions of filing the petition but did not read out the specific charges. The Collegian later obtained the petition through an open records request, revealing that Silva has been accused of harassing and verbally abusing his colleagues.

Douglas said she believes ASCSU is just following the advice they received from the General Counsel’s office.

“The student government right now is not evil. They just are afraid. And they think that they’re doing their job and they’re not,” she said.

However, she said it was still their responsibility to “do their due diligence in understanding the law.”

This is not the first time The Collegian has sought greater transparency from the student government and administration. Douglas recalled a similar 2014 episode in which ASCSU kicked both reporters and the public out of a separate impeachment hearing.

The Collegian reported that although its reporters initially refused to leave, they decided to do so before police intervention became necessary. Some ASCSU senators clapped as they left the room.

The SPLC reached out to the General Counsel’s office for comment on the current controversy, but was referred to CSU spokesperson Mike Hooker, who confirmed the university’s stance that ASCSU is not a state public body but provided no rationale.

ASCSU adviser Bruce Mann could not be reached for an interview.

Douglas described a long track record of poor transparency from the university.

“I have an incredibly difficult time reporting on just basic university issues,” she said. “Their default response is to not respond and to close up. It’s insane to me. I don’t understand from just a public relations perspective why they’re doing that.”

She also said the university has used “intimidation tactics” against her reporters. “I’ve had poor experiences with the PR at this university. I[‘ve] had them call my reporters and yell at them and tell them they’re being unethical and they’re not being true journalists,” she said. “I just find it totally inappropriate.”

Hooker acknowledged that his office sometimes reaches out to reporters to discuss inaccuracies in their work, but he said “we do that politely and we do it professionally.” He added that he considers it “a natural part of the relationship” between his office and student media, and that he urges anyone who feels mistreated to reach out to him.

Douglas said that although she has reported on ASCSU for almost three years, this was the first time she ever spoke during a meeting.

“In that instance I kind of removed myself as a reporter and then put myself in as a campus leader and the leader of my newspaper,” she said. “My job is to stand up for my organization and to set my reporters up for success.”

She said she hoped to set a precedent for colleges across the state that student government meetings must be open to the public.

“Journalism right now is so misunderstood. People don’t understand, really, the foundations of journalism, and the foundations of the First Amendment,” she said. “And so if I can use this as an example and say ‘hey, this is how it is supposed to function,’…I think that’s amazing work.”

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

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