Is it Illegal to Kick Campus Newspaper Out of Student Government Meetings?

At the start of the week, a campus council at California’s Chaffey College removed its student body president from office. Yet, the council’s deliberations on the removal were carried out in secret, the second of two recent meetings in which they have barred a reporter from The Breeze student newspaper from entering and observing.

The Breeze contends such closed sessions are against state law. Specifically, as the paper puts it, “Student governments are required to comply with the Ralph M. Brown Act, which, under section 54954.5, allows closed sessions only under specific circumstances, none of which applied in the recent closed sessions.”

According to Breeze editor-in-chief Valeen Gonzales, “We were criticized by the student government adviser for the story [alleging the council’s law-breaking], but are determined to report the truth. As editor-in-chief, I edited the story myself and stand by it and the reporter. I believe in our right to attend open meetings and report what happens.”

I asked Gonzales to further explain what exactly has been happening recently on the Rancho Cucamonga campus. In her words:

1“The SG president has come under fire for his endorsement of a non-incumbent candidate in the Nov. 5 Governing Board election, the only thing on the ballot for many residents of our district. The college president attended an SG meeting and publicly criticized the student president to the other SG officers. We ran an article about it.

“The day the article ran, the SG decided to hold a closed session to discuss the SG president without press scrutiny. They have been pressuring the SG president to either rescind his endorsement of the challenger or issue a public apology. They seem to be under the impression that they can go into closed session and avoid publicity over all of this. Our reporter objected at the second closed session [Monday] that they are in violation of the Brown Act. The SG claims that the SG president is an employee even though the Brown Act explicitly states that elected officials and members of a legislative body are not employees (page 35).

“None of the SG officers will speak to the press. They seem afraid and have been told not to speak to The Breeze about what happened in closed session. So, between the closed sessions and the refusal/fear to comment, The Breeze, and the students, are being kept in the dark as to the rationale of how the SG president violated the SG bylaws and true motivation for the removal of the SG President who was voted in by the students.

“The SG adviser has criticized the story as inaccurate via school (subject to FOIA) email to our newspaper adviser, the journalism coordinator, the language arts dean, the college vice-president, college president, director of student activities (SG falls under their umbrella) and the new SG president. I stand by the accuracy of the article. He may not like it, but every word in it is true. We have researched the Brown Act and are positive that the closed sessions are illegal.

“The timing of when they started and the actions they are taking in the closed sessions lead us to believe that they are holding the closed sessions to keep our reporter from writing about what is happening.”

Comments
One Response to “Is it Illegal to Kick Campus Newspaper Out of Student Government Meetings?”
  1. Erick F. says:

    EIC of a community college paper here. I had a similar incident happen during this semester on campus. Student Government attempted to block our reporters from taking audio files and attending the meetings, claiming that they were uncomfortable being recorded. They went so far as to stop recording their meetings, so we sent reporters in with our own audio recorders, and I personally attended the subsequent meeting to appeal directly to the SG officers.

    After a hearing my speech on press rights, SG backed down. we avoiding a press battle with the student government, received full access to all audio files, meeting minutes, and developed rapport with some of the officers. I suppose the point that I am trying to make here is on the college level, SG officials are often completely unaware of media laws and the public responsibilities that they hold. They may think that “just doing their job” is enough, but they also need to be aware that as representatives to the student body, they will be facing media scrutiny- it comes with being a peer elected public officer. It’s our duty to remind them of that responsibility, and my instance, I didn’t feel too bad about giving them the chance to adjust themselves into the role of accommodating our staff writers.

    It’s a shame that Chaffey College’s SG acted the way they did, but I can only wonder whether or not they realize that this is how “government” is supposed to work. In my opinion, sometimes taking a moment to clarify where we stand in this tumultuous political whirlwind between public organizations and the media can help smooth the hard edges when dealing with officials and officers. My recommendation to all EIC’s and politico beat reporters is to take a moment to introduce themselves to officials that they will be covering and explain to them the basic guidelines for media practices. It helped in our case. I’m not sure how The Breeze handle their collaboration with SG, so I could just be spewing hot air.

    TL:DR, I recommend communicating your responsibilities and expectations clearly with SG to prevent breakdowns like this from happening. If they still happen, then by all means: burn them for all the story is worth.