November’s University Board of Regents meeting did not go according to schedule.

Ten minutes into the meeting, members of the organization By Any Means Necessary rose from their seats in the audience and began disrupting the proceedings with shouting until the regents and executive officers vacated the room.

The regents later reconvened in the Regents Room of the Fleming Administration Building to approve the month’s agenda items, including a $49 million renovation to the Dennison Building and the construction of a $261 million Biological Sciences Building. The meeting was closed to members of the general public.

Though members of the press were alerted to the venue change, University officials did not publicly announce that the proceedings would be relocated.

“It was a complicated decision,” said University President Mark Schlissel in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “We certainly didn’t want to move it out of the public eye.”

The state of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act requires public governing bodies such as the regents to host meetings “in a place available to the general public.”

The law says votes must occur in the presence of the public and members of the public must have the opportunity to comment on the proceedings.

That evening, signs on the Fleming Administration Building read “The building is LOCKED.” Security guards explicitly blocked members of the public from entering the building.

After he reopened the meeting inside Fleming, Schlissel said public safety concerns necessitated the meeting’s relocation.

Though the Open Meetings Act states that “no one may be excluded from a meeting otherwise open to the public except for a breach of the peace actually committed at the meeting,” there are not specific provisions for excluding members of the general public at large.

Douglas Smith, a former University medical professor and one of the public speakers on the original agenda for the meeting, told the Daily in an interview Dec. 4 that he was denied entrance to Fleming.

“After a while (University spokesman) Rick Fitzgerald began to whisper something to the reporters at the media desk so I went up and asked him if they were moving the meeting,” he said. “He said they were and that I could follow him.”

Smith said a public safety official at the Fleming doors told him only those with approved media credentials would be granted access to the building.

“Then the chairman of the regents, Regent (Kathy) White, came to the door and told me they were not going to have public speakers today and that I was not allowed to come in,” he said.

In an e-mail Friday, Fitzgerald said the University maintains it fully complies with the Michigan Constitution’s requirement that formal sessions of the Board of Regents be open to the public.

“Regarding the November 2014 meeting, we believe the state constitution also gives the University latitude to take prudent measures to assure those attending board meetings are safe,” he wrote.

In a Dec. 5 e-mail, Diane Brown, spokeswoman for the Division of Public Safety and Security, said public safety officials and law enforcement are charged with assessing any potential threats to the community.

“If there is a condition in which the people or property in a particular location are threatened or where parties present have a heightened sense of fear for their personal safety based on an escalating situation, there may be a determination of a public safety threat,” she wrote.

The Open Meetings Act does not include specifications for relocating a meeting due to a public safety threat.

However, in 1980, the University faced a similar situation when students and members of the Washtenaw County Coalition Against Apartheid protested the University’s investments in South African corporations at meetings of the regents.

The protests forced the regents to recess their meeting multiple times over two days. The board ultimately obtained a restraining order against WCCAA which allowed the regents “to recess, move its location and exclude from attendance those persons who breach the peace.”

The coalition sued, arguing the regents violated the Open Meetings Act by preventing them from entering the new meeting location.

In Regents of the University of Michigan vs. Washtenaw County Coalition Against Apartheid, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled the regents’ actions acceptable, noting the presence of the restraining order and that both the press and members of the general public were notified of the room change.

“We do, however, share the concern obviously felt by defendants and the trial court that a meeting which is recessed remain open to the public,” the ruling read. “In order to remain faithful to the spirit and purpose of the Open Meetings Act the Regents were required to provide notice of the new time and place of the reconvened meeting. Plaintiff complied with the court order to this effect by posting officials at the Regents Room to advise the press and members of the general public of the room change.”

The University, however, did not notify members of the general public of the room change in November.

According to Frank LoMonte, Student Press Law Center executive director, based on the precedent from the 1980s case, the difference in whether the public was advised might be key in determining whether November’s meeting violated the Act.

“It seemed really important to the judges in the 1980s case that the public had a chance to go to the recessed location,” he said. “If the public wasn’t give the opportunity to go to the recessed location than that really might put a legal cloud over the move of location.”

Fitzgerald said because members of media were present, the University upheld the provisions of the Open Meetings Act.

“The meeting was reconvened at a different location, but not until all members of the news media were present,” Fitzgerald said. “We believe these steps provided for a balance between keeping those in attendance safe while still providing public access.”

Schlissel said members of the general public not involved in the protest were not permitted to enter the relocated meeting because the University did not have proper means to determine what members of the public were or were not part of BAMN.

“I don’t think we had a way to sort the general public into members of BAMN and non-members of BAMN,” he said. “So I think in real time as the decision was made, not knowing how to do the sorting without being prejudiced against certain people, we didn’t think it was appropriate to try.”

“We ended up striking a compromise that the general counsel thought was legally consistent with the Open Meetings Act,” he added.

Herschel Fink, editorial legal counsel for The Detroit Free Press, said members of the press are often considered surrogates of the public by the courts.

“In this case, given exigent circumstances, the situation with the disruption, I think it was a justifiable action to move the meeting and to allow representatives of the public in,” Fink said, referring to the media. “I think it then constituted a substantial compliance with the law.”

The Free Press is currently involved in a lawsuit against the University over a separate violation of the Open Meetings Act, filed in July. The suit alleges that most decisions made by the University’s Board of Regents are made in private.

“We are still several months away from depository motion stage, where we will be filing a motion with the court asking them to declare whether or not the University is violating the Open Meetings Act,” he said.

At the end of November’s meeting, several BAMN organizers said they had plans to return to the December regents meeting.

“We were very disappointed that the meeting was disrupted and we are trying to develop ways to allow groups their free speech rights, to have a civil protest, which is very important to us, but not to disrupt a meeting or the rights of others,” Schlissel said.

Schlissel declined to discuss the University’s plans to address similar BAMN protests in the future.

“Rest assured, there are specific plans,” he said.

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