A controversy on the UC Irvine campus in recent days between the student newspaper and student government has highlighted a little-known fact: The state's open-meetings law does not apply to most of the University of California.
The open-meetings law generally covers all agencies spending public money. The law says meetings of such agencies must be open to the public, whose money is being spent.
But the powerful University of California is an exception to the rule. New University, the student newspaper at UCI, found to its surprise recently that it can't invoke the state's open-meetings law to cover a meeting of student-government officers because almost all UC events are free of the law.
The newspaper has been seeking to cover a forthcoming study session of student officers in which they will make recommendations on the spending of about $225,000 in student-paid fees for next school year. Student government, called Associated Students of UCI, has opposed the newspaper's presence at the meeting.
"We talked to the staff lawyer (for the UC system) in Berkeley, and he told us that Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act doesn't apply to anything at UC except the UC Board of Regents," said Martin Beck, editor-in-chief of New University.
"We thought they (student officers) would be breaking the law if they had closed meetings because we thought that since the Board of Regents delegates its authority to the chancellors and student governments and since the Board of Regents must have open meetings, that these other things must be open too. We were surprised when we found out differently."
In a telephone interview from Berkeley on Wednesday, Edward M. Opton Jr., a staff lawyer in the UC general counsel's office, confirmed that he had sent a legal opinion for Associated Students at UCI telling the student government that the state's open-meetings law didn't apply to them.
The opinion, Opton said, originally was issued in 1985 for UCLA, where a similar question arose over access to student government meetings.
The question at both UCI and UCLA was whether the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act applies to UC student government.
The UC general counsel's opinion states that the act does not apply, and a recent state appellate court decision confirmed the basis of that opinion, Opton said.
Opton, who is assigned to UCI's legal matters, said that only a week ago the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled that faculty meetings of the Hastings College of the Law were not subject to the open-meetings act.
Opton said the University of California has a legal standing unusual for a state university. Under the California Constitution, the university is an autonomous branch of the state government, on the same plane as the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
Because of this autonomy, the open-meeting act did not apply to UC when it was passed, Opton said. A subsequent constitutional amendment made the UC Board of Regents subject to the open-meeting law but not other types of UC meetings, Opton said.
Neither the opinion not the appellate decision mandates that UC meetings be either open or closed to the public. They state only "that the Bagley-Keene act does not apply," Opton said.
Asked what level of UC administration has the authority to order student government meetings opened or closed, Opton said "it's a complicated situation."
"The school administration would tend to exercise as little authority as possible over the student government" to leave intact the student government's independence of action," Opton said. "Probably both parties--the administration and student government--may tend to step back from confrontations about who has the ultimate power."
Beck said Wednesday night that New University last month notified Associated Students that the paper planned to cover a meeting of outgoing and incoming student government officers scheduled for the Memorial Day weekend. "Those officers make recommendations on how the budget is to be spent for the next year," Beck said.
Associated Students opposes having the paper present because "we can't be as candid as we might otherwise be," said Todd Dickey, administrative vice president of the organization. "We'll also be talking about staff--personnel matters," Dickey said. "The paper just announced it was going to cover us."
Dickey said the annual meeting of student government leaders will be off campus--a site hasn't been picked yet--and will be from May 23-25. He said that although the student government budget is nominally about $450,000, about half that amount is in fixed expenses for staff salaries and office equipment and material.
"We'll be making recommendations on how about $225,000 is to be spent, and they're just recommendations," said Dickey, a senior from Vista. "The (Student) Council makes all the decisions in completely open meetings."
The Student Council comprises 36 elected student representatives, Dickey said.
Beck, a senior from Whittier, said he still hopes some way can be found for the newspaper to cover the student officers' off-campus meeting. "Those recommendations they make then are very important because the council usually follows most of them," Beck said.
But Beck said he sees no legal recourse for the paper. "We'll be writing the chancellor, asking him to clarify what meetings on the UCI campus are open," Beck added. "There's not much else we can do. Maybe someone (in the Legislature) will try now to amend the (state) Constitution so that UC will be covered by it (the open-meetings law)."