College association subject to open government requirements
NEW YORK–An organization which controls the purse strings for student activity fees at a New York community college is bound by open meetings laws, the state’s highest court in Albany held in mid- February. The Court of Appeals decision marks a victory for the college newspaper which challenged the organization’s closure of a meeting where it discussed sanctioning the paper.
The Fiorello H. LaGuardia Community College Association, which is comprised of administrators, faculty members and students, controls the collection and disbursement of mandatory student activity fees at the taxpayer-supported college. The association also may withhold funds for activities that are “inappropriate, improper or inequitable.”
In September 1993, the college’s newspaper, The Bridge, published a column containing anti-Semitic statements which provoked a strong reaction on campus. Several months later, the association formed a subcommittee to investigate whether the newspaper had violated the bylaws under which it was governed. The newspaper’s publication was suspended when the college refused to cover printing costs for the next issue.
In March 1994, the subcommittee held a closed meeting to discuss lifting the suspension. Physically barred from entering the meeting, the newspaper’s editor in chief and a broadcast journalist sued, asserting that the association violated the state’s Open Meeting Law by discussing restrictions on the newspaper and the expenditure of student activity fees in closed session.
The high court unanimously held that the association is a public body and it violated state law when it held the closed session.
Unlike a club or extracurricular activity, the association has broad power to exercise what the high court called “quintessentially governmental functions.” The association “possessed and exercised real and effective decision-making power,” performing more than mere advisory functions with respect to college activities, the court noted.
“A formally chartered entity with officially delegated duties and organizational attributes of a substantive nature, as this Association . . . enjoys, should be deemed a public body that is performing a governmental function,” the court held.
The court reversed an appellate court decision finding that the association was not bound by state open meetings law because it did not control public funds or exercise sovereign power.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center filed a friend of the court brief in support of the journalists in the appeal before the high court. (Smith v. City University of New York; Media Counsel: Ronald McGuire, New York)