The Student Government Association at the University of Central Florida has been under fire this year for incidents concerning lack of transparency, among other things.
Knight News, an independent news organization covering UCF, has issued two lawsuits this year stemming from a failure of the SGA to adhere to Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Act - a law that requires proceedings of government agencies be made available to the public.
The most recent suit concerns the senate’s passing of an Activities and Services budget of $18.6 million.
This meeting did not have an open forum for members of the press. The senate defended this action by saying that the committee meetings, where the budget is presented, are open to the public.
Knight News argues that the committee meetings, held on December 16 to 18, are in violation of the Sunshine Law because public meetings need to be held at a time when the public has a reasonable opportunity to attend.
Knight News SGA Reporter Michael Williams says that when the dorms are closed, it is no longer a reasonable time to hold a budget meeting. He adds that UCF statute 4.03(f) states that the student government cannot conduct business on official university holidays.
“I lived on campus, so I could not have gone to these meetings if I wanted to,” Williams said. “If all the people who live on campus can’t attend these meetings, then obviously it’s not a reasonable opportunity.”
When Williams returned for the spring semester, Knight News asked for the documents pertaining to the $18.6 million budget. Despite repeated requests, Knight News didn’t receive the requested documents until three days after they filed the lawsuit.
In March 2016, Knight News launched another suit against the SGA after the suspension of the presidential campaign of Jacob Milich, the hearing for which was held in secret.
The Student Government has defended its actions by explaining that it does not represent a real Florida government and are thus not required to follow to the Sunshine laws.
UCF’S Board of trustees voted on an amendment to university policy which would strengthen that claim Thursday.
The proposed amendment, which affected University Regulation UCF-5.0021, was originally worded to say that the SGA may propose the allocation of funds from activity and services fees. The use of the word “propose” instead of the former “determine” would give final authority of the Activities and Services budget to the Board of Trustees rather than the SGA.
Additionally, it included a clause that stated
“Student government may not act as an agent for the State of Florida or the University of Central Florida. Student Government may not enter into agreements or contracts which purport to bind the university for any purposes.”
SGA president Christopher Clemente opened his office to speak with students two days prior to the meeting, where he asked them how they felt about a revision to replace “propose” with “determine.” Clemente introduced this revision to the board Thursday, to which the board unanimously agreed.
“Outside of that ‘propose’ phrasing, the changes to the SGA’s power are, from what I’ve seen, nothing,” Clemente said. “The Board of Trustees has always been the ultimate decision-makers. This is just putting what we were already doing in writing.”
The Student Press Law Center, a D.C.-based nonprofit aimed at protecting student journalism, has published at least three articles relating to UCF SGA and Knight News disputes since 2013.
The news organization first sued over transparency regarding the redacted disciplinary hearing records of a fraternity accused of hazing. A circuit court later deemed the redactions legal.
In an article published July 28, the SPLC reported that UCF is asking a court to order Knight News to pay its attorney's fees.
The Florida Supreme Court has ruled in the past that university tuition and fees are "unquestionably" state funds, making them subject to Sunshine law requirements.
Story originally published on August 2, 2016.