FAMU Attempt to ban media from meetings may violate Sunshine Law

Courtesy of FAMU

Florida A&M University’s administration is trying to ban media, including The Famuan and Journey magazine, from covering Faculty Senate meetings.

This would be a violation of the state’s Sunshine Law, according to Barbara Peterson, CEO of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. 

Petersen told The Famuan that Faculty Senate meetings are in fact subject to the Florida Sunshine Law because they are delegated with the authority to make recommendations.

“Advisory bodies are subject to the Sunshine Law in Florida. It’s not just those collegial bodies, or commissions or committees that make decisions. The constitution says that all meetings of any collegial body of which public business is to be transacted or discussed shall be opened and noted to the public,” Petersen said.

An email was sent on Feb. 17 by FAMU Assistant Vice President for Communications, Marketing and Media Elise Durham to the university’s Faculty Senate President, Bettye Grable, requesting to halt media at future Faculty Senate meetings.

Grable had no comment regarding the email sent by Durham.

The email was also addressed to former Faculty Senate President and current Faculty Senate member, Maurice Holder, who did not respond to attempts to contact him.

The request to prevent media from attending Faculty Senate meetings was designed to have the “opportunity to function at internal meetings without the media’s presence,” Durham said in the email.

“It’s important for faculty and others to express their true feelings and concerns without the worry that something they say may show up in the media,” Durham said in the email. “Our internal proceedings should not be viewed as a source for stories.”

The email also said there was “no place” for external media, “including student media.”

The Faculty Senate makes recommendations for decisions, which makes it subject to the Florida Sunshine Law. According to the Florida Bar’s Reporter’s Handbook on the Florida Sunshine Laws, there is a right of access by the media to these meetings at a public university.

“A right of access to meetings of collegial public bodies is also recognized in the Florida Constitution,” the Florida Bar website says. “Virtually all collegial public bodies are covered by the open meetings mandate of the open government constitutional amendment with the exception of the judiciary and the state Legislature…”

The Sunshine Law, according to the Florida Bar website, extends to the discussions and deliberations as well as the formal action taken by a public board or commission, which would include the Faculty Senate.

“The Sunshine Law applies to public boards and commissions, i.e., collegial bodies,” the Florida Bar website also says.

A statement sent by Shira Thomas, FAMU’s interim general counsel on Thursday, Feb. 26, following a public records request for the initial email, argues that the Faculty Senate is not subject to the Florida Sunshine Law, because although it is an advisory body, it is not making joint decisions or deliberations with the “ultimate decision-makers.”

“The University Constitution designates the Faculty Senate as an advisory body,” the statement said. “However, the Faculty Senate is not an advisory body that is subject to the Sunshine Law as it does not have specific decision-making authority; or delegated authority from the Board of Trustees; or from a single public official such as the President or Provost; and are not making decisions on behalf of the Board or a single public official.”

Pat Gleeson, general counsel to the Attorney General of Florida agreed with Petersen that the Faculty Senate meetings are open to the public.

Attempts to reach Durham and Jimmy Miller, FAMU President Elmira Mangum’s chief of staff, were unsuccessful.

Faculty senator Darryl Scriven, who became a senator in August 2015, added some faculty senators may feel more comfortable without media at the proceedings.

“Because the Faculty Senate is a deliberative body, it may feel more comfortable making the results of deliberation public through the Meeting Minutes rather than opening the proceedings to Media,” Scriven said.

Scriven also noted that though there may be a more specific reason that leadership is being prompted to adopt a new stance on media attendance at meetings, he is “not personally aware of it.”

Donovan Harrell, fourth-year broadcast journalism student and former Editor-in-Chief of The Famuan newspaper, believes student media has a place at meetings held by the university where important decisions are made.

“On one level I understand where they’re coming from because there have been mistakes made by student media,” Harrell said. “But this is our training ground. How else are we going to learn to report on government county (and) city meetings? This is our opportunity to practice our reporting skills and learn how to report on important meetings like this.”

He also noted that he believes this violates Sunshine Law, because they are “holding meetings in secret” and not allowing students or other media to listen in on these important meetings.

Petersen, with the First Amendment Foundation, essentially said the same thing.

“If the meetings are subject to the Sunshine (Law), they have to open the meeting to everyone. They have to provide notice, they have to allow the public to participate and they have to take minutes. They cannot exclude members of the public, they cannot exclude the media and they can’t exclude student media,” she said.

The next Faculty Senate meeting will be held March 15 at 3 p.m. in Lee Hall Auditorium.