A lawyer representing student journalists at Dixie State University is asking the Utah attorney general’s office to enforce the state’s public meetings law after campus administrators blocked access to meetings of the school’s faculty senate and student government.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Utah Assistant Attorney General David Jones, First Amendment attorney Jeff Hunt questions the university’s interpretation of state law and asks that Jones either compel transparency or provide his opinion on why Dixie’s meetings can be conducted in private.
“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.”
Hunt’s letter follows months of tension between the student-run Dixie Sun News and administrators at the St. George university.
Ryan Heinlen, Sun News editor-in-chief, compared reporting on campus goings-on to climbing a wall, saying sources have been reluctant to speak with her and other student journalists, have ignored the paper’s requests for public university records, and have blocked access to meetings.
Bylaws of the school’s faculty senate currently limit attendance to members and “guests as invited,” but Hunt and the Dixie Sun News staff argue that as an advisory board for a public government entity, meetings of the senate and similar boards should be open to the public and the press.
“Right now, it doesn’t feel like there’s trust in journalists at all,” Heinlen said.
The disagreement came to a head in October, when the student paper published an editorial criticizing campus administrators for a perceived lack of transparency.
“Members of the Dixie State University community have acted unconstitutionally,” the editorial stated. “They should be reminded that as a public entity, DSU is held to certain standards set forth by Constitutional freedoms and government laws.”
Heinlen said the editorial led to a meeting with campus administrators that seemed to improve the situation, with public records requests being addressed more promptly and students allowed to sit in on some — but not all — meetings of the faculty senate.
And next week, the Dixie faculty senate is scheduled to consider changes to its rules for public attendance, potentially closing all meetings in perpetuity. The change is allowed, campus administrators argue, because the faculty senate and other advisory boards are not subject to Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act.
“They’re not a decision-making body on campus,” Dixie spokeswoman Jyl Hall said. “They are talking about sensitive faculty issues.”
Ric Cantrell, spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office, said it’s clear the Open and Public Meetings Act applies to a university’s board of trustees. But there is a question, he said, of whether subsidiary bodies are required by law to maintain open meetings.
“We anticipate that we will give an opinion to our client [Dixie State University] in the next month,” Cantrell said. “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?"
Hall, spokeswoman for Dixie, confirmed the school’s position that meetings of its faculty senate do not fall under legal requirements for public transparency.
“Dixie State University stands by our policies that allow applicable groups to meet in private if they so desire,” she said.
Many other Utah campuses, including the University of Utah, allow public attendance at faculty senate meetings. But the Utah System of Higher Education, or USHE, does not have a uniform policy on whether and what meetings should be open to the public, according to system spokeswoman Melanie Heath.
She said attorneys for USHE agree with Dixie that campus faculty senate meetings do not fall under Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act. And while the state’s public schools may maintain those meetings open as a courtesy, she said there is no rule or law requiring them to do so.
“Members of the public may or may not be invited,” Heath said, “based on the wishes of that [campus] entity.”
Hunt said campus faculty senates and student government entities are significant governing bodies, deliberating and issuing recommendations for campus policies and the allocation of public resources. Excluding those meetings from the Open and Public Meetings Act, Hunt said, can result in the loss of agendas, recorded minutes and public oversight of campus functions.
“Those have been open for years at other universities,” Hunt said. “It’s just puzzling that supposedly there’s this new interpretation.”