Media groups to file legal action against regents

by Josh Linehan

Three of the state’s largest media organizations will ask a court for a temporary injunction against the University’s Board of Regents today.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune and The Minnesota Daily seek to prevent the regents from continuing their search for a new president outside the state’s open meetings law.

Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Daily and the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said forms asking for either an emergency hearing or an injunction against the process would be filed this morning.

Anfinson said the suit was necessary to force the University to conduct its public business within the confines of the state’s open meeting law as well as the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

“At some level it’s a slap in the face to the University’s legal constituency, especially in the face of the stream of state legislative funding that comes to the University,” Anfinson said.

The regents voted unanimously to exempt themselves from state law at a Monday night meeting. The decision comes after the presidential search committee had narrowed the field to five to seven candidates.

A letter sent to the regents by attorney Paul Hannah on behalf of the Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press echoed the same legal arguments and asked for the regents to reconsider their position by noon today or face legal action.

St. Paul Pioneer Press Projects Editor Jeff Kummer confirmed the paper had authorized the attorney to take legal action.

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said Tuesday night he had not discussed the letter with the regents but would do so promptly. On Monday he told the Daily the board was not required to comply with the state open meeting law because the University and the regents were created before Minnesota became a state.

Anfinson said that legal argument had been used by the University before – notably in Winberg v. University of Minnesota, a case the University won – but not in regards to a public records case.

“The University is not at all exempt from state law and certainly not the state laws that are at the heart of the democratic process,” Anfinson said.

Also at issue is whether those selected by the regents subcommittee are legally considered finalists, which would make the list public information according to the data practices act, Anfinson said.

University media ethics and law professor Jane Kirtley, who is a national media law expert but not a member of the Minnesota bar, said closing the search process was a bad idea from both a legal and policy standpoint.

“It’s not a new issue; it comes up all the time,” Kirtley said of the argument that candidates will be reluctant to apply if forced to interview publicly. “But in general, it’s something courts have been very skeptical of. But the bottom line is the individual state’s open meeting law.”

As for the University’s territorial law argument, Kirtley said, “It doesn’t make any sense to me, but it’s certainly a creative approach.”

She said regardless of the prestatehood argument’s success, it puts the regents in a tough position.

“Even if they can make this argument, what kind of statement is this going to make – that they are going to fly in the face of the Legislature’s will, which is the people’s will,” Kirtley asked.

Rotenberg said Tuesday night he had received the letter from Hannah but could not comment on the legal issues raised by it or the Daily until he had seen the actual court documents.

He would not say whether he expected litigation following the decision, but said “I’m always prepared to protect the Board of Regents’ interests.”

Josh Linehan covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]