(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is long and complicated, but worth it. If you disagree but still dislike the idea of student government officials randomly closing meetings, student newspapers getting financially bludgeoned and other similar things, hop to the bottom and contact the people involved to have your voice heard.)
A student asked me this question during our advising appointment this week:
“Why do I have to take media law?” she wanted to know.
“Because you need to know if someone out there is trying to screw you,” I explained.
I wish I could remember who asked that, because the situation involving Wichita State University and its newspaper, The Sunflower, is a perfect example of how government, law and media can become a jumbled mess.
The student government decided to cut the paper’s funding in half, from $105,000 this year to $55,000 for next year. This is on top of the cut the paper took two years before that of $58,000. (In case you’re a journalist and math-averse, that means the paper went from $158,000 to an expectation of $55,000 to start next year. That’s almost a 68 percent decrease over that time span.)
“We are the line-item that got cut the most,” EIC Chance Swaim said in a telephone interview Wednesday night. “In fact, many of the fixed items got an increase in funds.”
The Sunflower receives approximately 50 percent of its operating revenue from the student fees, with the rest coming from advertising. The student government retains the right to set amount of fee money the twice-weekly paper gets, which can create a problematic situation. News organizations serve as the “fourth estate” and will often have to call government officials to account for their actions. It is exactly this kind of coverage that has The Sunflower staff thinking the funding cut is retaliatory.
“We have not had the most favorable coverage of the student body president this year, but it hasn’t been overly aggressive,” Swaim said Wednesday. “We just cover SGA meetings. We had a lot of controversy last spring, but it’s been kind of a private year overall. The administration is where we’ve had a lot of big stories and they’ve given us a lot of push back on that.”
The administration’s take?
Paige Hungate, WSU’s student body president, said the proposed cut “has nothing to do with coverage, nothing to do with content.”
Teri Hall, vice president for student affairs at WSU, said the proposed budget cut “has nothing to do with punishing people for what they write.”
Neither of Hall nor Hungate said exactly what IS behind this draconian financial measure. At least, nobody said it in public, which leads to the second most egregious thing they did this week:
The Student Fees Committee closed the door to its meeting room in the Rhatigan Student Center Friday afternoon to deliberate about how to allocate between $9.53 and $9.82 million in student fees — claiming SGA is not a state agency, student fees are not state funds and, therefore, the meeting could be held behind closed doors.
The authority granted to the Association in this section is derived from and shall be subject to the authority of the Board of Regents and the President of the University.The authority granted to student organizations, through a grant of official recognition, is derived from and shall be subject to the authority of the Association and its representative bodies.
The nine-member Kansas Board of Regents is the governing board of the state’s six universities and the statewide coordinating board for the state’s 32 public higher education institutions (six state universities, one municipal university, nineteen community colleges, and six technical colleges).
Most places make student orgs like this subject to the law… 75-4318 sure makes it look like this is a government body subject to the act. It’s a board/council/authority supported by government funds and expending them, and it doesn’t fall under an exception.
How does a public body properly go into an executive session?
First the public body must be in an open session, before going into an executive session.
Then, a motion must be made, and seconded.
The motion must contain statement of Justification for closure; Subject(s) to be discussed; and (3) Time and place open meeting will resume.
Example: “Madam Chairman, I move we recess into executive session to discuss disciplinary action against a student in order to protect the privacy of the parties involved. We will reconvene the open meeting in the conference room at 8:30 p.m.”
Swaim said Wednesday no intention to close was posted, no motion was made and nothing else like this happened in the open, public part of the meeting (if one even existed).
“We tried to go in and Hall said, ‘This is a closed meeting,’ and closed the door on us,” he said. “Then she sent out the students who were on the committee to to see the attorney and they came back and told us ‘The meeting is closed.'”
In its reporting on the matter, The Sunflower found itself similarly rebuffed by vague answers and a lack of due process.
Hall said the students went to speak with the general counsel, “because the bylaws say, it’s a student government decision. That’s why they went over to do it.”
About 20 minutes after leaving the RSC, the students, led by (SGA President Paige) Hungate, returned. Hungate approached reporters and said the meeting would be closed “according to discussions with people.”
Asked to elaborate, she said she and the other students had consulted with “the general counsel’s office” who advised her it was “a student government decision.”
Hungate said she was advised “student fees aren’t public funds, and that SGA is not a state agency.”
The Sunflower basically finds itself fighting a war on multiple fronts: It is trying to figure out how to survive if it loses half of its already diminished funding, it is trying to find out WHY the funding cuts happened and it’s trying to fight for transparency in its government. It’s also trying to put out a twice-weekly paper and a daily online product.
“It doesn’t feel great,” Swaim said Wednesday. “I think, though, it’s a good opportunity for a lot of clarification. If we can get this cleaned up to where we don’t have to fight this every year, to where it’s clear where we stand on campus… I think it’s valuable to go through this. It’s something that will be an ugly fight, but it will benefit everyone and I think before it’s all said and done, someone in the administration is going to need to step up and say, ‘Enough. This is how we’re going to handle this.'”
With that in mind, here are three takeaways/action items associated with all this:
- Know your rights and fight for them: People, especially people who don’t like you, will always try to weasel their way around the rules to benefit themselves and screw you over. This is why you have to know the law backward and forward so you can force the hand of people like the SGA folk. Most, if not all, state open records and open meetings laws put the presumption of openness first, which means you don’t have to prove why something should be public. The other side has to prove why it should be held private. That means actually citing a real law, not “tradition” or “our bylaws.” If the SGA rewrote its bylaws to dictate that before holding a meeting, the SGA president had to murder a freshman in front of everyone, would that make it legal to do so? Obviously not.
If you know your rights, you can stop people from randomly violating the law and you can serve as a true watchdog for your audience.
Don’t let people snow you under.
- The media matters: The reason we all know about this is because media outlets (The Sunflower, The Wichita Eagle etc.) are on the case. The Washington Post adopted the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” and there couldn’t be a better example of this than what we’re seeing here. When any public body can operate without the oversight of the public itself (or its surrogate, namely the media), it can do a lot of things that will benefit it or harm its “enemies.”
Truth be told, I HATED covering meetings when I was a reporter because they felt pedestrian, incremental and pointless. However, once I got into the editing side and could see more of the big picture, I started to realize how important it was to dig in on a lot of political issues, particularly those involving money.
We have fewer and fewer media outlets out there and most of them are in a state of atrophy, due to budget cuts and staff reductions. Those that remain at the publications are expected to do more with less. This can’t lead to the erosion of democracy and public accountability.
Support your local media in any way you can. Buy a subscription. Read it and talk it up. Connect with the staffers to let them know you value what they do.
“We are the voice of the students on campus,” Swaim said Wednesday. We provide a forum for discussion of campus things. We bring the campus into the public sphere. We let people know what’s going on and we provide a historical document for our campus. We matter.”
- It can happen to anyone, anywhere, so speak up: The story of The Sunflower is a sad one, but it’s not unique. The Student Press Law Center has a running list of stories that outline some of the egregious ways in which student governments or college administrations have yanked funding, threatened reporters, violated the law and other fun things. I know many student newspaper advisers and those of us who have been in the game long enough know that at any point, this could happen at our school.
I had the benefit of working at Ball State University, which had its journalism department founded by Louis Ingelhart. Louie, as he was affectionately known, was a champion for and an expert on the First Amendment. His passion for student media imbued everyone in that department and flowed throughout the university. When we got a new president in the early 2000s, Louie showed up for the press conference. He was in his 80s at that point, but he found the student reporter and told him, “You go tell (the president) that nobody at this university has ever censored the student newspaper and nobody is ever gonna.”
I also had the darkness that comes with student government people who feel way too self-important. After telling The Advance-Titan for years that we should “forget about the debt” we were accruing and that OSA (student government) would handle it, one group decided to use the debt as a cudgel to get rid of me. (It still bugs me to no end that if you google me, one of the top returns is the article where they told the city paper I needed to be fired if I didn’t resign.) Fortunately for me, I had a good chancellor and some good support, but there were also people unhappy that the paper and I escaped.
The point is, that it can happen to anyone, or as Swaim told me, “It’s really important for all of us (student journalists/media outlets) to be in this together because we are all in this together. An attack on one college newsroom is an attack on all college newsrooms.
With that in mind, I’d ask that you let the people at WSU know what you think of this situation.This is Teri Hall, WSU’s vice president of student affairs, who was the administrator in the meeting where the funding was cut and the person who aided in the closing of the funding meeting. Click here for her email address and let her know how you feel about the issue of open meetings and their importance, or whatever else you have to say about The Sunflower situation. Or call her at: 316-978-3021 and have your voice heard.
This is Paige Hungate, WSU’s SGA president, who said, “I’m not trying to have a discussion about this right now. I’m just trying to tell you what our decision has been made by student government association” as a legal rationale for closing a meeting in violation of KOMA. She based this decision “according to discussions with people.” You can email her office here and express any concerns you have about this situation as well or call her office at 316-978-7060.
You can also contact anyone at the WSA SGA from this page and express yourself, explain how open meetings work or generally let them know what you think about these actions.
This is John Bardo, WSU president, who wrote to Hall that the meetings should be kept open. You can email him here to thank him for a commitment to the First Amendment as well as state law. You can also let him know that you are paying attention to all this now, in case he decides to waffle after nobody’s looking. His office number is 316-978-3001 in case you’d like to chat with him.
Finally, this is the website for The Sunflower, Chance Swaim’s office email address and the paper’s Twitter handle. Feel free to hit these folks up on any one of these platforms to let them know you support them. When the OSA was kicking my ass all over the place, the one thing that kept me sane was knowing people out there cared. It meant more than anything. I’m sure The Sunflower staff will appreciate it as well.