Wisconsin students ask attorney general to rule on whether student governments are subject to sunshine laws

WISCONSIN -- Student journalists in Wisconsin are asking the state attorney general to clarify whether university student government organizations are subject to the state's sunshine laws.

Frustrated by student government officials' attempts to stonewalling the press, three students from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee wrote the 147-page letter explaining their view that student governments statewide should be open to the public like all other government agencies because they allocate millions of dollars and have statutory authority to make university policy.

"We're just trying to shed light on a dim segment of Wisconsin government," said Jonathan Anderson, who worked with fellow students Jesse Manser and Matthew Schultz.

Anderson is also editor-in-chief of the UWM Post, an independent newspaper on campus that clashed with the student government over travel records in 2008. Student Association officials initially said they would release the records about a March 2008 trip to New York City, but later refused and said the organization was not subject to the state open records law.

Also in the spring of 2008, reporters from the on-campus broadcast program PantherVision were barred from student government hearing about election violations. A student government official called security to remove the reporters after they refused to leave, though they were eventually allowed to stay after they explained their rights.

Those two incidents inspired the project, Anderson said. The students did statewide research to find out whether other student media organizations encountered similar problems. They examined the student government bylaws of every four-year institution in the state for mentions of open government principles, and also did extensive case law research about how sunshine laws have been applied to "quasi-governmental" agencies in the past.

They found many inconsistencies between different campuses, along with general confusion among students and administrators about how open government laws relate to the student government organizations.

Mark Zoromski, who teaches broadcast journalism classes at UW-Milwaukee and advised the project, said he was inspired by how much work the students put into the project.

"They just really believed in what they were doing, and they did a great job," he said. "Hopefully they're going to force student government to be more transparent in the future."

Zoromski said they believe it is clear student governments should be held to the same standards of transparency as other government agencies.

"Student governments in the state of Wisconsin administer more than $25 million a year worth of public money -- and yet they are in some cases trying to operate in secret, and there's no clear definitive ruling that says they can't operate in secret," Zoromski said.

The students worked on the legal interpretation request as an independent study project during the fall semester. Anderson and Zoromski met with assistant attorneys general in Madison on April 15 to present the letter and discuss procedure.

"It was a pretty quick meeting, but we were happy to get some time with them so they realize how important this issue is," Anderson said.

Anderson said it could take as long as a year to hear back from the attorney general's office since the legal issue is complex.

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