Forums for all, not press

Heather Mangan

Heather Mangan

The Collegian will go before a judge for an order barring the South Dakota Board of Regents from keeping reporters out of SDSU presidential candidates’ meetings with students Sept. 14 and 15.

The move comes after the BOR told The Collegian in writing that reporters will not be allowed to attend the candidate sessions, said Jeremy Fugleberg, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

Robert T. “Tad” Perry, the BOR’s executive director, said members of the media will be asked to identify themselves at the beginning of each session and will then be asked to leave. If they fail to do so, they will be removed.

Fugleberg said he and other reporters from the newspaper are planning to attend the event as journalists. He said the legal action is necessary to “bar [Perry] from kicking us out of the forums.”

According to Perry, the BOR has had the same presidential search process for 20 years. The process allows different constituent groups to participate in interviewing the finalists. Those groups then give their opinions to their presidential search committee representatives, who will give a final recommendation to the BOR.

“The constituent groups (are) very much an important part of the interview process of the candidates,” Perry said.

It has always been the policy that media groups are not allowed to be involved in constituent interviews, Perry said.

“It’s not a news event, it’s an interview,” he said. “There is no role for the media because the media doesn’t provide a role in the interview process.”

Fugleberg said it’s the newspaper’s job to inform students about the candidates and the conversations during the sessions.

“We think these forums are very important for students. They are a great opportunity for students to meet the future of the university,” he said. “From the very beginning, all we wanted to do is report on these forums for the students who can’t be there.”

Joel Hefling, a faculty representative for the search committee, said the media has a right to be at the meetings.

“Not all have the opportunity to go and The Collegian serves as their eyes and ears even after the fact,” he said.

Regent Terry Baloun, chair of the presidential search committee, said the media restrictions are in place to prevent unfair biases. He said there are concerns that the media may write stories or publish polls that favor one candidate while the BOR hires someone else. That would be unfair to the new president, he said.

Perry agreed.

“If you take the beauty contest approach, you have damaged the ability to make a professional transition from the candidate process to the governmental process,” he said.

Perry said he can’t stop the media from interviewing constituents after the sessions or researching the candidates on the Internet.

Steph Chase, one of two student representatives on the search committee, said a press conference with finalists could be a solution to the conflict.

“We’re not discouraging The Collegian from writing a story,” she said. “I think there is a place for the media in this process, but not necessarily in the student constituent meetings.”

Fugleberg said Perry refused a request for a press conference with the finalists. He said the meetings are public and are considered open under South Dakota law.

But Perry disagreed and said the constituent meetings are not considered open. The law allows government agencies to go into executive session to discuss specific issues, such a personnel decisions, he said. Perry said the sessions are merely allowing constituents to be a part of the interviewing process, which is considered personnel business.

There wasn’t much room for compromises between the policy and the media’s wants, Perry said. If he made exceptions for The Collegian, then he would have to make exceptions for all media, and that just didn’t seem like an option.

Fugleberg also couldn’t see a compromise.

“From what we understand, the candidates have been gagged by the Board of Regents and our coverage of the forums might be the only way that students who can’t attend these forums can hear from the candidates first hand,” he said. “We’ve tried to make this work from both sides, but we’ve been met time and time again with a brick wall.”

The lack of compromise led to The Collegian’s legal move, which could be denied.

Perry said the BOR could also cancel the constituent interviews and make the decision without those recommendations.

But Fugleberg said he hasn’t been given the impression that will happen.

“There is no indication these forums may be cancelled and we are not intending they be cancelled,” Fugleberg said.

The debate could be brought in front of the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission, which would have more effect on future searches than this specific search, Perry said.

Fugleberg said he intends to take the process before the commission.

But some believe the process should change.

“I think The Collegian is forcing an evaluation of the process and that is important,” said Tim Waltner, a member of South Dakotans for Open Government and chair of the South Dakota Newspaper Association’s First Amendment committee.

“Our rights as citizens need to be protected and perhaps that political climate may have prompted The Collegian to say ‘we are going to take a bold step and challenge a policy we think is wrong,'” he said.

“How is it going to turn out? You don’t know, but you don’t know if you don’t try,” he said.

Although both sides are set for a clash, they are disappointed things happened this way.

“The media has become the story, not the search for the president,” Perry said.

“I would like nothing better than if our front page this week was all about the candidates coming this week and Helen, ‘The Lunch Lady,'” Fugleberg said.

#1.884361:921686274.jpg:tad_perry.jpg:Robert T. “Tad” Perry:#1.884262:3344883481.jpg:Fugleberg, Jeremy.jpg:Jeremy Fugleberg, In the Middle: