Two students reporters representing The Student Union, a registered independent student organization at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, were threatened with arrest for attending a public meeting of the campus student government organization last week.
The two reporters were told they could not enter the October 30 public meeting of the UH Hilo Student Association, the student senate, without showing their student identification, and would not be allowed to record the meeting.
Signs were posted which announced both requirements, despite an earlier acknowledgement by UH officials that recording of public meetings must be allowed.
When the reporters persisted, campus security was called. The two did open the unlocked door and enter the meeting, where they were again told they would have to leave.
The incident was described in a press release from The Student Union organization distributed by email this week.
The students also distributed a one-page handout which listed relevant laws and UH policies supporting their right to attend and to record the meeting.
Surprisingly, the list did not include the state’s sunshine law, which provides for open meetings of public agencies.
I originally noted here that the sunshine law applies to the student government. That was my recollection from a controversy during the 1970s over the Manoa student senate’s control over a share of the proceeds from sale of the old Honolulu Stadium in Moiliili. However, I’ve learned that a 1985 legal opinion by the attorney general, issued prior to the creation of the Office of Information Practices, ruled the opposite.
I have not yet obtained a copy of that opinion to review.
The sunshine law requires public meetings to be open to the public and, if applicable to UH, would not appear to allow attendance to be restricted only to UH students, faculty, and administrators. And a requirement to produce identification as a condition of entering a public meeting would also appear to be contrary to the sunshine law’s open meeting requirements.
In addition, the law specifically allows audio recordings of public meetings, although it is silent on video recording. However, the law was passed before small devices, like smartphones, which can record both audio and video became widely available. And the law is specifically required to be interpreted broadly in favor of open meetings. For this reason, it seems likely that non disruptive video recording using small handheld devices would found to be consistent with the intent of the law.
Video taken while they were in the meeting showed that the it was already being taped, apparently as part of the official record.
Previous opinions of the Office of Information Practices have held that audio recordings maintained by government agencies are public records. To the extent that those recordings are held by university employees, it would seem that they would be considered public records, whether or not the open meeting requirements apply.
Here’s a summary of OIP’s Opinion 92-13:
The State Office of Veterans Services (OVS) must disclose the audio tape recording of a public meeting held by the State Commission on Memorials for Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts (Commission). The OIP determined that the audio tape recording of the Commission’s public meeting is a “government record” under the UIPA and that none of the exceptions to required disclosure applies to this government record. Also, section 92F-12(a)(16), Hawaii Revised Statutes, expressly requires an agency to make available for public inspection and copying “[i]nformation contained in or compiled from a transcript . . . of a proceeding open to the public.” Therefore, upon receiving a request for the disclosure of the audio tape recording of the Commission’s meeting, the OVS cannot fulfill its obligations by merely disclosing the written meeting minutes.
And Opinion 97-06:
The Department of Health’s (“DOH”) audio cassette recordings of its public meetings are government records that are public under the UIPA. The DOH must provide another audio cassette copy rather than a written transcript of the recordings upon receiving a request for a cassette copy.
In breaking news, The Student Union’s Facebook page reported today that the Student Association’s advisor has “stepped down” and that “all future UHHSA meetings cancelled until new adviser found.”
It seems this is a story with legs.