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Law school board not subject to open meetings law

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Law school board not subject to open meetings law

  • A Pennsylvania appeals court rules that the governing board of a public law school is not subject to the state open meetings law.

May 10, 2004 — The Board of Governors of The Dickinson School of Law at Penn State University is not an agency subject to the open meetings requirements of the state Sunshine Act, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled 4 to 1 last month.

On Jan. 17, 1997, The Dickinson School of Law, a private law school, entered into a merger agreement with Penn State, a public university. The merger became effective July 1, 2000.

As part of the merger agreement, the schools agreed to a number of conditions, including that the law school’s name would not be changed from “The Dickinson School of Law of the Pennsylvania State University” or be moved from its location in Carlisle, Pa. The law school created the Board of Governors to enforce the agreements with the university.

On Nov. 4, 2003, Phillip McConnaughay, dean of the law school, sent a memo to the board suggesting that the school should be moved from Carlisle to State College, Pa. The board scheduled a private meeting for Nov. 21 and 22 to discuss the relocation.

The (Carlisle) Sentinel learned of the meeting, and on Nov. 20 filed for an injunction with Judge Renee L. Cohn of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania to prevent the meeting or require it to be open to the public under the Sunshine Act. The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News joined the suit.

On Nov. 21, the injunction was denied and the meeting occurred as scheduled.

On Jan. 23, the newspapers filed for another injunction in the Court of Common Pleas in Carlisle to open the next meeting of the board, scheduled for Feb. 7. On Jan. 29, the court ruled that the board is a committee of Penn State, and therefore an “agency” subject to the Sunshine Law. The board appealed.

On April 23, the Commonwealth Court reversed. “The Board of Trustees of the former Dickinson School of Law wanted to ensure that it would have some type of separate legal existence in order to represent its ongoing interests and concerns, and PSU agreed, pursuant to the terms of the Merger Agreement,” Cohn wrote for the majority.

Because the board was not created by the university, does not have power delegated by the university, and does not include members of the university’s Board of Trustees, it is not a committee of the university and not subject to the act, the court held.

Cohn noted that the board’s approval on whether to move the law school was not the deciding factor, and that the university must also approve in deliberations that must be open to the public.

Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner dissented, holding, “Meetings at which the Board takes official action or renders advice on agency business should be open to the public.”

(Lee Publications v. The Dickinson School of Law; Media Counsel: Niles S. Benn, Benn Law Firm, York, Pa.) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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