Court to rule on freedom of press case

Molly Moker

Issues broader than First Amendment rights might be at stake following the decision of a Minnesota Supreme Court case against the University.

In November 2002, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, The Minnesota Daily, the Rochester Post-Bulletin and the Minnesota Joint Media Committee sued the Board of Regents for breaking public information laws.

The outlets said the board violated the law when it withheld names of University presidential candidates and conducted confidential meetings during its 2002 University presidential search.

The outlets said First Amendment rights for citizens might not be greatly affected by the court ruling. But citizens’ trust in an open government and the future of University presidential searches could be in question.

John Borger, Star Tribune attorney and representative of the five media outlets, said this case is more a question of public information access than classic concepts of the First Amendment. Borger said important public rights of self-governance are at stake.

“In order to function as a democracy, the general public has to know what their delegates are doing,” Borger said. “Whether it’s legislators or regents, you expect these people to tell you what they’re doing.”

He said in February’s state Supreme Court oral arguments that the University said it would try not to stray from state public information laws often.

“But what they will actually do if the court rules in their favor, only the future can tell,” Borger said.

University Deputy General Counsel William Donohue said if the court rules in favor of the University, the institution might continue to hold confidential presidential searches.

“It will be an option that the Board of Regents will have for the future,” Donohue said.

The University presidential search is the only circumstance in which the University is arguing confidentiality, he said. Donohue said if the court rules in the University’s favor, the institution will not stretch the ruling to cover other confidential meetings.

“The Board of Regents and the University have a big history of openness, in both its work and in its records,” Donohue said. “This case is an exception, an important one, and it will not happen very often.”

Donohue said the ruling will not affect campus openness or First Amendment values for students.

“The University itself exists in large part due to the First Amendment,” Donohue said. “We have academic freedom and we get to research whatever things we choose.”

If the state Supreme Court rules against the University, the institution might look into changing the constitution to allow confidential presidential searches, Donohue said.

If the court rules in favor of the University, Donohue said the ruling will not hold precedent for other institutions to step around public information laws.

The University has constitutional autonomy and is governed by the Board of Regents, not the Legislature. The University is the only institution in the state that has this autonomy.

“Legally, (other institutions) will not be able to cite this case,” Donohue said. “Will they try to use it as a policy basis to get around something? Who knows?”

Mary Jane Morrison, a Hamline University constitutional law professor, said freedom of the press must be remembered during University affairs.

“People in the state need to know what’s going on and that’s where the press is a guardian of public information,” Morrison said. “They need to go to these meetings and enforce that the public has access to information.”

Morrison said the University should not be allowed to hold confidential meetings.

“The University’s presidential searches should be open even to the public,” Morrison said. “That may affect the process, but the end result will be better in the long run.”

Morrison said if the court rules in favor of the University, it will be on narrow grounds, which will pertain only to the University.

She said it is difficult to tell what the University will do in the future if the court rules in their favor.

“Either they’ll get what they want and go away, or they’ll get an inch and take a mile,” Morrison said.