Op-Ed: FAU’s Journalism Task Force Violates Sunshine Law

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Journalism Task Force co-chair and UP adviser Ilene Prusher

Recently, Florida Atlantic University’s Journalism Task Force met to discuss how to make student journalism better at the school. Transparency, though, was obviously not one of their goals since the committee decided the public meeting would be closed to the public.

The JTF’s job is to provide recommendations to the university on how to improve the University Press, FAU's student newspaper. That will most likely will include incorporating it into the communications department.

Experts say closing the meeting violates Florida’s “Sunshine Laws,” which govern the public’s right to know.

“A committee formed for the purpose of making recommendations is subject to the sunshine law … even if those recommendations aren’t binding,” noted Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, whose purpose is to defend Florida’s open government laws.

As an alumnus of FAU and a former editor in chief of the UP, I am highly skeptical of a student media takeover by the communications department. These recent events only reinforce my doubts.

Public universities, such as FAU, are indeed subject to Florida’s open government laws. Why? Because they’re funded with public money — therefore the public has a right to know. Anytime a public agency attempts to thwart that right, we should all be concerned.

Joel Chandler, another expert, agreed with Petersen.

“In spite of Florida’s exceeding broad open government laws, Florida’s state universities have a long tradition of wanting to operate in the shadows,” Chandler said. And Chandler has often put his opinions to the test, filing — and winning — more than 300 lawsuits against public agencies for Sunshine Law violations. “We might hope that our schools of journalism might be the exception but we’d probably be disappointed. It’s human nature to seek to avoid accountability. And that’s precisely why open government laws are so important. When you’re acting on behalf of the public and at its expense you don’t have the right to operate in the shadows. Of all people, journalism teachers should understand why.”

Unfortunately the journalism professors running this committee clearly do not.

Instead of standing up for transparency they took the easy way out and shielded their decision to close the meeting with FAU’s legal department.


Journalism Task Force co-chair Neil Santaniello

“The Journalism Task Force was appointed by the FAU administration. The administration consulted its legal team and they ruled that the JTF meetings are not public,” wrote JTF co-chair and UP adviser Ilene Prusher.

Here’s the problem with FAU’s legal team: They are not experts in Sunshine Laws or the First Amendment. In fact, over the years, they have given some terrible advice in regard to these.

For example, in 2010, the student media director at FAU told the editor in chief of the UP she was not allowed to seek the advice of a previous adviser — on or off campus. Guess where the director got that advice. FAU’s lawyers.

The decision was so bad it was covered by several media outlets and prompted a letter from the Society of Professional Journalists criticizing the school’s decision.

An attorney for the Student Press Law Center had this to say at the time:

“Bullshit. That’s a flat-out freedom of association violation. [The former adviser is] not a leader of a terrorist cell. You can’t just say, ‘You can’t talk to people.'”

So you can see why I am skeptical of any recommendation from FAU’s legal team regarding the First Amendment or our state’s open government laws.

In regards to the JTF’s recent meeting, I also reached out to FAU’s media relations department.

“They’re not subject to the ‘open meetings’ requirement of the Sunshine law,” wrote Lisa Metcalf, Chief Press Officer for FAU.

The university has not responded to my follow up questions, like “Are there any documents relating to this decision?” and “why are they not subject to said law?”

I am especially disappointed in the other co-chair of the JTF, Neil Santaniello, who was once my environmental journalism professor.

Santaniello, who is also a UP adviser, should know all lawyers are not created equal. I wouldn’t consult a criminal defense attorney on tax law. Nor would I quote a tax attorney on environmental law. I wonder what Santaniello would have said if I had done so for a class assignment.

But let’s give the JTF the benefit of the doubt and say they had the legal authority to keep the meeting closed. Why take that step? Just because they believed they could keep it private didn’t mean they had to.

Why err on the side of secrecy instead of transparency?

The current editor in chief of the UP, Emily Bloch, who is also on the committee, didn’t agree with the decision to keep the meeting closed and live-tweeted it.

Santaniello was not happy.

“I feel the need to reiterate my concern about your decision to live-tweet the Journalism Task Force meeting last Friday. I am speaking as both a UP adviser and task force chair person. You cannot be both a task force participant and journalist covering the task force. In my view, that constitutes a conflict of interest,” Santaniello wrote.

He’s probably right about that. Except Santaniello should probably take his own advice. As chairperson of the committee he should not be giving advice on how to report on the committee. Now that’s a conflict of interest.

Santaniello or Prusher should immediately resign from the JTF in order to be able to properly and impartially advise the UP — unless they are nothing more than communication department cronies. What’s more important: furthering the department’s agenda or advising the student newspaper?

I attribute much of my journalism knowledge and know-how to the UP. I became quite familiar with Florida’s public record and open meeting laws as a student. Student Government officials routinely attempted to keep student reporters out of meetings and so I had to rely on my adviser, the Student Press Law Center, and others in order to keep them in check.

FAU officials have a long history of attempting to intimidate student journalists.

A former president of FAU once decided to call a “closed” meeting with the entire Student Government’s ruling council.

As a student I challenged the university’s position. We called the Student Press Law Center and higher education reporters from the Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach Post to alert them. It didn’t take long after before I got a phone call from media relations telling me they reconsidered and the meeting would be open.

It’s funny how that works.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned from FAU, and the UP, was to always challenge authority – never accept its word as fact.

Furthermore, journalists and journalism professors should always advocate for the public’s right to know. Transparency is a key component of doing our job.

The University Press has long been independent of the communications department and these recent events show why it should probably remain that way. As I noted above, advisers to the UP haven’t always been the best advocates for its student journalists.

So therefore I will be that advocate if I must. And, as long as these task force meetings remain closed, I promise to continue writing about them.


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