Student reporters kicked out of “open” student government meeting
Reporters at the North Carolina State University newspaper Technician pushed back last week after being removed from a controversial student government impeachment hearing.
The hearing was for student body treasurer John Taylor Willis, who was charged with abuse of power and neglect of duty. When the time came for committee members to deliberate on Willis’ charges, committee chairperson Ryan Dunn kicked the reporters out of the proceedings, along with members of the public.
The meeting has moved into a closed deliberation setting. Technician has been removed from the meeting. #GROHearing— Technician (@NCSUTechnician) September 6, 2017
CLOSING THE “OPEN” MEETING
Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Carter said NCSU Assistant Vice Chancellor Justine Hollingshead told reporters at the meeting that precedence existed for taking this sort of action and committee members could close off meetings at will. Hollingshead declined to comment for this story.
NCSU student government statutes state, “All meetings of public bodies shall be open to all North Carolina State University Students, except as the closing of meetings is permitted by the General Statutes of North Carolina." This gets to the heart of Carter's complaint, that Technician reporters were not given a legal reason for their removal.
No legal reason was cited for Technician's removal from the closed session. #GROHearing— Technician (@NCSUTechnician) September 6, 2017
The acting sergeant-at-arms of student senate escorted reporters out. The last several minutes of a live-streamed Facebook video taken by Technician reporters shows the discussion between reporters and committee members leading up to the removal.
Committee members allowed visiting senators to stay for the deliberation. Carter said if the meeting was confidential enough to keep reporters out, it did not make sense that committee members allowed visiting senators to remain.
After about 45 minutes of deliberation and voting, committee members allowed reporters to come back in and told them results of the committee vote: to reduce charges made against the student body treasurer.
Carter said he asked for specific information regarding voting results from Dunn, who said he could not provide information because members made the decision by a voice vote. Dunn and Student Senate President Mitchell Moravec were contacted for this story, but did not respond for comment.
After the meeting, Technician editors contacted the Student Press Law Center and the North Carolina Press Association for help. Carter set up a tentative meeting with Hollingshead, who said she would answer his questions, and would not be bringing a university lawyer. The meeting is expected to take place within the next two weeks.
“We really don’t know what to expect going into this meeting,” Carter said. “She said that we may not be happy with the answer we get.”
Carter said Technician is not expecting administrators or student government officials to apologize for their actions. He said he would prefer to resolve the issue without a lawsuit, but that it depends on the university’s response.
He and the staff of Technician want an admission of wrongdoing and illegality, legal reasoning for the reporters’ removal, and a promise that reporters and the public will not be removed from any future student government meetings without being given an appropriate legal reason.
“This is, right now, not a catastrophic problem, but it could be down the road,” Carter said. “If they continue doing this, what's to stop them from keeping us out of senate meetings or executive meetings or calling us and saying, ‘Hey, don't run this in your newspaper,’ or something like that? That’s not a precedent that I want to set.”
Technician reporters have written extensively about the impeachment proceedings and their removal from the meeting. Carter wrote a letter from the editor regarding press access to student government meetings. He said students who can’t attend important student government meetings like this rely on student journalists for information.
“When members of student government or the university administration are kicking us out of meetings, are not letting us be privy to the deliberations of what’s going on, they’re directly obstructing that,” Carter said. “They are halting the information from getting to the students and we are not able to do our jobs as reporters, as members of the press, if members of student government or the university administration are not letting us be there.”
*Correction: A previous version of this article identified Justine Hollingshead as "assistant vice president" when her title is "assistant vice chancellor." We also corrected "sergeant-in-arms" to "sergeant-at-arms."
SPLC staff writer Emily Goodell can be reached by email or (202) 478-1926.
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