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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Student governments must be accessible

Can students access their student government's full records? You would say ""sure"" without the blink of an eye. But when reporters at UW-Milwaukee's student newspaper, The UWM Post, wanted the same information, they were only given heavily redacted materials from the university. Last week, the Post brought the matter to court after 10 months of fruitless negotiation. By resorting to legal action, its student journalists have taken a courageous step to defend their peers' rights.

The dispute stemmed from a request in January by The UWM Post's then-Editor-in-Chief Jon Anderson asking the university for meeting records of the Union Policy Board. As a branch of UWM's student government, the board oversees all student organizations on campus, allocating office space and budgets. Obviously, it is an important organization for most students on campus. However, UWM withheld key information such as names of student representatives and even their opinions, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, prevents schools from releasing students' educational records without their consent.

At first sight, FERPA seems like a reasonable shield for UWM. It has been widely used by universities as an indisputable reason to restrict information. But look into what FERPA means by ""educational records"" and you may see that UWM is overextending its use of the act. The U.S. Department of Education gives a list of examples such as transcripts and advising folders. All of them are academic records, which are considered private student information. The Post was looking for minutes and audio recordings of student government meetings, which are part of public records, so FERPA shouldn't apply in UWM's case.

Moreover, Wisconsin open records law requires that in the case of a representative government, all people should be entitled to the greatest possible information about its affairs. This should apply not only to civic governments, but also to governmental. After all, they also arise from elections and redistribute resources from electorates and should be held accountable just like any other government.

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To many of us, the only factor setting student governments apart from other governmental bodies is their smaller scope of authority. This difference doesn't excuse UWM's student government from obeying the law.

Student governments should be transparent to their own electorates. In its mission statement, the UWM student government stresses student participation as its top priority. But when the Post couldn't get access to full records of the Union Policy Board, students' access to information was shut off. If we don't know what is going on within our own government, how can we effectively participate in it? On the website of the Union Policy Board, none of the representatives' names are available. If students don't know who are making decisions for them, how can they trust those decisions?

The Post's lawsuit heats up a long-term transparency issue with student governments. Many student newspapers hit the wall when they search for answers on behalf of their audience. The Daily Texan at the University of Texas-Austin received an e-mail leaking a scandal within the student government. Staff members filed a records request but never received a response.

This lawsuit could be the most effective solution to such problems. Even though the court proceeding might drag on for years, the newspaper's complaint immediately put UWM on the spot. Now the university has to offer an acceptable explanation, or it will confront its own students in a civil trial. As an independent student newspaper, The UWM Post is taking on a great financial risk by going to court. But, on principle, it is worth it, since they are fighting for students' fundamental right to know.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the case, the Post should be lauded for fighting for their journalistic rights. Because if a newspaper can't get access to information, where does that leave everybody else?

Qi Gu is a junior majoring in journalism. Please send all feedback to 

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