Dixie State students battle access issues

News outlets throughout history have acted as a system of checks and balances to governments. The students at the Dixie Sun News are trying to live out that responsibility but have had doors literally slammed in their faces in the process.

On Jan. 19, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that students at Dixie State University hired First Amendment attorney Jeff Hunt, who asked Utah Assistant Attorney General David Jones to uphold state meetings law regarding access to faculty senate and student government meetings.

“This is a public university; it’s supported by public tax dollars,” Hunt told the Salt Lake Tribune. “The idea that they could conduct their business behind closed doors is totally contrary to the letter and spirit of the Open Meetings Act.

A Dixie Sun News reporter was removed from a faculty senate meeting on Sept. 20, 2018.

“They’re not a decision-making body on campus,” Dixie spokeswoman Jyl Hall said in the Tribune article. “They are talking about sensitive faculty issues.”

The Tribune reported that Ric Cantrell, spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office, said the Open and Public Meetings Act applies to a university’s board of trustees, but he questioned whether subsidiary bodies are required to open meetings.

“We anticipate that we will give an opinion to our client [Dixie State University] in the next month,” Cantrell told the Tribune. “We’re not answering the question of whether Dixie State should open meetings or whether it’s smart to open meetings. We’re just answering the question: Do the legal provisions of the Open Meetings Act apply to this particular internal group?”

According to the Tribune story, bylaws of the university’s faculty senate meetings limit access to invited guests. Sun News editor-in-chief Ryann Heinlen said the Sun News started attending faculty senate meetings during the 2018-2019 academic year in order to “better understand and highlight the good that faculty are doing on campus.”

On Oct. 16, 2018, the staff wrote an editorial about their ongoing challenges to report the news of Dixie State University, an 8,993-student campus in St. George, Utah.

“As both students and journalists, we have protections that are meant to help make our jobs easier, but these freedoms are consistently ignored or denied, and we often find ourselves without sources or sometimes a story,” the staff wrote in the editorial.

“Open access to documents requested under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act has been a hurdle we have had to face for two and a half years,” Heinlen said.

Students were told they needed special permission to access open events, endured sources trivializing stories the Dixie Sun News thinks the public needs as not being newsworthy, and wrapped up interviews only to be told crucial information is “off the record,” the Sun News reported in its editorial.

Following the publication of the October 16 editorial, Heinlen said the staff met with many school officials to attempt to remedy the situation, but overall the consensus is split. The University Marketing and Communication Department has worked to provide aid wherever it can, but that does not mean its sole purpose is to protect the rights of student journalists, she said.

The Sun News reported Jan. 28 that a vote to consider the public nature of its meetings was delayed by the Dixie State Faculty Senate until the university receives an opinion from the attorney general’s office. Michelle McDermott, faculty senate president and associate professor of nursing, says that the faculty senate is not a public body and is not applicable to the open meetings law.

The students have reached out to or were contacted by the Student Press Law Center, College Media Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.

“Overall, the consensus from some faculty and staff is that the media are not to be trusted, and it aligns perfectly with national opinion,” Heinlen said. “As students, we are learning how to be reporters and editors in a time where being a journalist is almost taboo. We’re portrayed in movies as slimy and untrustworthy, and by our politicians as ‘fake news.'”

She said feeling this push back from the very people who champion “active learning, active life” was disheartening at first, but “no one goes into this field for fame or approval ratings.”

“Our staff has used the conflict we have faced in this and previous semesters to be become better journalists,” Heinlen said.

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