Sit-in

The "Baker 70" sit-in protest at Ohio University's Baker Center in February 2017.

The volunteer members of the work group on Ohio University’s “Freedom of Expression” policy voting unanimously to keep the group’s meetings closed to the public says a lot about higher education in general. The irony is clear.

It’s also not surprising, however, knowing OU’s track record on transparency with regard to public meetings and public documents in the last three-plus years that I have covered the institution.

The interim “Freedom of Expression” policy at OU, in case you’ve been living under a rock the last few months, bans protests and other demonstrations inside university buildings. That policy, along with another interim policy about “Use of Outdoor Space,” has drawn much ire from the university community, has been condemned by all of its major constituent senates, and even has been called “unconstitutional” by the ACLU of Ohio.

Given all of that negative attention, I do understand the context behind why the members of the “president’s policy advisory group” wouldn’t want to let people in on their discussions. The group was formed by OU President Duane Nellis to go through what likely are mountains of feedback provided to the university on the interim policies, and then provide a recommendation on how OU should move forward with a new policy.

But given the manner in which the policies on “Freedom of Expression” (the name is almost Orwellian, no?) were developed by OU’s legal office – basically in a vacuum with no input from faculty or student constituencies – the burden is on the university, and by extension this policy advisory group, to keep these discussions in the sunlight as much as possible.

The most unsettling thing about the decision to keep the group’s doors closed is that nobody on the committee has particular expertise on the First Amendment. As OU journalism professor Bernhard Debatin pointed out during Faculty Senate’s meeting last week, the group’s composition is “lopsided” in that it has very few student and faculty representatives (two students and two faculty) for a policy that largely affects just those groups. In total, the group includes the university police chief; its senior director of communications; the director of Baker University Center; a legal affairs representative; the chairs of its Student and Graduate student senates; the chairs of the Administrative and Classified senates; dean of the Scripps College of Communication; one Faculty Senate designee; and the chair of the OU Department of History.

The group’s unanimous vote to keep the meetings closed (while providing media availability and meeting minutes after said meetings) came after discussion about “transparency” being the group’s core value, Scripps College of Communication Dean Scott Titsworth said in a letter last week.

“In addition to transparency, the group adopted values that all voices should be heard and to show respect for others,” Titsworth wrote. “With unanimous consensus, the group decided meetings should continue to be held in private in order to accomplish the work at hand in an efficient manner and meet the expected delivery deadline for recommendations.”

Former Athens resident and OU student Jon Peters expressed extreme disappointment in his alma mater when he heard that bit from Titsworth last week. Before leaving Athens, Peters wrote a column for The A-NEWS, and is currently assistant professor with the Grady College of Journalism and affiliated assistant professor in the School of Law at the University of Georgia.

Peters said while the jury is out on whether or not the group will be forced by Ohio’s public meetings law to meet openly, the group should have chosen to meet in public regardless.

“It has chosen not to do so, for reasons so absurd that they should be written in crayon,” Peters wrote in a comment. “The group acknowledged the importance of transparency, then decided to meet secretly. And no less than the Scripps College of Communication dean, the group's convener, said efficiency justified the secrecy. First, a process involving public participation will almost always be less efficient than a process not involving public participation. Second, that's a reasonable price for a public university to pay to be respectful of its community members and to encourage public input and confidence in the group's work – and to be accountable for it.”

When I asked Titsworth how the meetings would become more efficient by closing the doors to the public, he responded in an email: “Our primary tasks require the group to quickly establish a culture for open dialogue where ideas are tested, counter-viewpoints expressed, opinions challenged, and sense-making narratives explored,” he said. “Ultimately, we will create work products to be widely distributed and available for public scrutiny. Because the group members have not worked together in this capacity previously, it is our belief, through consensus, that we can best establish such a group culture through private discussions.”

Titsworth also noted that the group’s members have “complete freedom” to discuss its work outside the meetings.

I don’t buy Titsworth’s reasoning here. Given the sheer amount of bad faith generated by the university by shoving this policy into place over the summer, the onus is on this policy group to demonstrate that it’s listening to all comments on the policy while developing a policy that will best serve all campus constituents (which, by the way, includes Athens residents and other campus users who aren’t directly affiliated with OU, who are not represented on this group).

I also fail to see how letting members of the public sit down and listen to the group’s deliberations will in any way impede expediency. You don’t have to allow public comments. If this were a OU Board of Trustees meeting, I wouldn’t expect to be permitted to interrupt that body’s work with questions and comments.

Alas, none of this is surprising. OU has a history of convening “advisory groups” that are composed of campus constituencies but are closed to the public. The Budget Planning Council, for example, which goes through the very important task of sifting through the university’s financial decisions, has long been closed to the public (despite posting meeting minutes online and having press conferences after the meeting).

Jim Phillips, former associate editor of The Athens NEWS, was arrested while covering a similar advisory group meeting devoted to exploring the university switching from semesters to quarters in 1997. The university argued that the group’s meeting was closed to the public, and after he declined to leave, a OU police officer escorted him out of the meeting.

Phillips, now a communications specialist with OU’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, recalled in a brief interview recently that it was a “judgment call” at the time for him (he stressed that he was only speaking in his capacity as a former A-NEWS journalist).

“My gut instinct was that they were discussing something of significance to the community,” Phillips said, explaining that the group was going to advise the OU Board of Trustees on the matter.

The charge of criminal trespassing was ultimately dropped against Phillips, and he holds no hard feelings against the university, he said. His understanding of university’s legal viewpoint is that because the group was not taking a vote on anything, it could keeps its doors closed.

There’s not enough space in this column to go through the lengthy court decisions in Ohio that relate to the state’s Open Meetings Act, and as Peters noted in his comment, that’s not really the point. The Act doesn’t require the policy advisory group to keep the meeting closed.

“It's as if Ohio University set out to create a free-speech group that would be a parody of itself,” Peters said.

I tend to agree.

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