We have regularly discussed the rising attacks on free speech on college campuses, including Northwestern University. Protesters at Northwestern have blocked speakers while maintaining that there is “no free speech for overtly racist white dudes.” They have stopped classes from discussing ICE policies. However, the student government has now added an attack on the free press by voting to block media from meetings to protect students from criticism over their advocacy. Even the dean of the school’s prestigious journalism school called out the action as inimical to the free press.
The Daily Northwestern reported that the vote of the student government was unanimous in barring media from some meetings. It only pledged to supply “minutes to journalists for closed meetings, withholding the personal information of speakers.”
Student government member Assem Belhadj explained:
“This is about how to make sure student activism within ASG can be protected in a way that students can speak and have the freedom to dissent on issues without having this fear that what they say will be blown out of proportion and they will be publicly criticized.”
So these are government meetings but students do not want to be held accountable for what they may say or demand. What is striking is that Northwestern has been regularly criticized for its cancel culture where students seek to silence opposing views. Yet, in seeking government action, students do not want to be identified in seeking controversial measures.
Putting aside the denial of the rights of the free press, including the college newspaper, the move violates decades of sunshine laws premised on open government.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act embodies this policy, which presumes meetings will be open and “strictly” construes exceptions. The OMA states that “it is the intent of [the Illinois] Act to ensure that actions of public bodies be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.” 5 Ill. Comp. Stat. 120/1 (West 2005). The narrow exceptions deal with such subjects as disciplinary actions, collective negotiations, removals from office etc. It does not include a general closed meeting power.
Clearly, this is a private university and not subject to the OMA. However, Northwestern’s student government is now moving to insulate its student government from public scrutiny and accountability. It is a deeply troubling lesson for students who believe that government should be less transparent and advocates should be less accountable in seeking official changes. Moreover, even if you want to allow people to speak at meetings without identifying themselves, the meetings (and student representatives) should always be subject to media and public scrutiny.
The question is whether this is a matter left entirely to students at a university. We faced a similar question when student governments targeted individual students for unpopular viewpoints. The university should have its own policy on student government and open meetings. Just as student governments should have to operate consistently with regard to free speech, they should do so with regard to the free press.
- For the record, I hold a degree from Northwestern University.