The UNC Board of Governors may have violated the state’s Open Meeting Law when it moved to a private room to avoid student protesters on Friday.
The UNC Board of Governors began Friday’s meeting as it often doeswith a prayer.
“Dear God, give strength and open-mindedness to everyone in this room,” prayed John Craig Souza, a board member.
About two hours later, however, board members demonstrated that their minds were no more open than the doors they hid behind to avoid about 30 student protestors.
There, in a guarded conference room in UNC Charlotte’s Student Union, the only thing louder than the “ayes” of every board member present voting to close three UNC System centers was the chorus of students chanting “Let us in!” from the hallway outside.
“Even though it’s a public meeting, the board isn’t interested in hearing the voices of the students they’re affecting,” said Elisa Benitez, a senior at UNC Charlotte.
Benitez is a member of the North Carolina Student Power Union, the student advocacy group that organized the demonstration. Though Benitez didn’t have to go far to get to the meeting, other members of Student Power drove from schools across the state to protest the closing of UNC Chapel Hill’s Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity; N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement; and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity.
“They always try to shut down student voices,” Benitez said.
This time, the board might have tried too hard. According to Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association, the board likely violated the state’s Open Meeting Law when it retreated from its original location to a separate room to escape Student Power’s demonstration.
“I don’t think a public body can pick and choose who to let in, in a discriminating fashion,” Martin said. “The law is clear that they can remove dissidents, butin my opinionthis was a violation of the Open Meeting Law.”
The protest began shortly after Jim Holmes Jr., chairman of the conservative working group that called for the closing of the three centers, began to present his group’s findings. One after another, students in the audience stood and read from a prepared speech, interrupting and silencing Holmes.
“This Board of Governors represents an attack on free speech,” said one protester.
Board chairman John Fennebresque immediately told her to “sit down and stop talking.”
Moments after the demonstration started, Fennebresque ordered two police officers, who had been watching the students, to remove protestors from the room. But each time police removed a student, a new one took his or her place and continued reading the shared speech.
Eventually, Fennebresque called the meeting into recess and moved it to a separate room.
Several students tried to follow the board members, but police officers and board staff denied them entry.
Mark Dorosin, managing attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, was not allowed into the meeting, either. Although high on the board’s closure list, the center was allowed to continue.
“If somebody were to take legal action against the board, a judge could rule any decision made during the closed section of the meeting void,” Dorosin said.
Fennebresque defended the move stating that the video and audio stream offered in the original room was sufficient to comply with the Open Meeting Law.
Martin disagrees, citing the legal precedent set in Garlock v. Wake County Board of Education, which examined what it means to “attend” an open meeting.
“Open Meeting Law allows any person to attend such a meetingnot to view or to listen, but to attend,” Martin said.