Newspaper joins board of trustees fight

ALABAMA -- Student and professional journalists have joined together to sue the Auburn University Board of Trustees because of what they believe are violations of the state's open-meetings law.

Six professional newspapers, along with the Alabama Press Association and Auburn's student newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman, filed a lawsuit Feb. 28 accusing the 14-member board of violating the open-meetings law by holding regular executive sessions before its regularly scheduled meetings. The suit also asks the court to prevent the board from holding future secret meetings.

The newspapers contend the open-meetings law only allows such private meetings for the purpose of discussing the good name and character of an individual or to receive legal advice from an attorney. The board, however, says the law only applies when a quorum -- at least half of a meeting body -- is present.

In response to the suit, the board filed a complaint for declaratory judgment arguing that "a gathering of fewer than eight members of the board" does not fall under the open-meetings law. The complaint also argues that in the absence of a quorum, the board can only recommend action by the university and thus should not be considered a board that has "any legislative or judicial function."

Scott Brown, president and publisher of The Montgomery Advertiser, the initiator of the suit, said the newspapers are going to move to quash the complaint. Dennis Bailey, the newspapers' attorney, said depositions in the case should begin mid-May. Brown said the board's meetings should be open and that the private sessions prevent the Advertiser from assuming its role as the eyes and ears of the general public.

"We feel it's the public's right to know. We take our role as a watchdog for the community very seriously," he said.

Plainsman editor Rachel Davis said the board has begun posting its scheduled meetings on the university's Web site, which it had not done before the suit began. She also said the newspaper has been trying to gain access to the board's executive sessions for several months.

reports, Spring 2001