State News

October 31, 2012

AG: Universities can close discipline hearings

ATLANTA — The Georgia Attorney General’s Office has told University of Georgia officials that the state’s colleges and universities may close student disciplinary hearings to the public under Georgia’s Open Meeting Act.

Closing the hearings would mark a significant change in how they’ve been handled in the past. They’ve been open to the public since 1993.

Assistant Attorney General Kelly Campanella announced the decision in a letter, which was sent to UGA officials last week, according to The Fulton County Daily Report (http://bit.ly/PF2Bh6 ).

UGA sought the Attorney General’s opinion after The Red & Black, an independent student newspaper at UGA, requested records from student conduct hearings this year.

The letter said the Open Meetings Act would allow UGA to close student disciplinary hearings in most instances, but all of them.

A central issue is whether information that identifies a student is shared at such hearings, which could be at odds with federal privacy laws.

Nearly all students choose to appear at their disciplinary hearings, and a student’s mere presence at the hearing would identify him or her, the letter states.

“While, as a practical matter, such circumstances may mean that few disciplinary hearings can remain open, the Open Meetings Act does not authorize a blanket closure of all disciplinary hearings,” the letter states. “It simply permits an agency to evaluate each hearing on a case-by-case basis and close it to the extent that ‘personally identifiable information’ is revealed; in other words, in cases in which the student does not appear personally or in which unprotected file information is considered, those hearings must remain open, even if only in part.”

Critics of closing the hearings have said that public safety could be jeopardized if serious crimes go unreported and are not known by others outside of the hearing.

“It’s dangerous to public safety and public accountability to maintain a system of secret courts where crimes can be whitewashed without a paper trail,” Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said earlier this month.

Georgia’s open government laws were revamped by the state Legislature during its 2012 session.

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Information from: the Fulton County Daily Report, http://www.dailyreportonline.com

 

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