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Students stayed away from buildings where the UNC System board was voting on DEI changes. Is that legal?

Students at UNC-Chapel Hill say they were barred from the building where the UNC System’s Board of Governors — a public body — met Wednesday, raising questions about whether the board may be violating the state’s open meetings law has violated.

The board’s University Governance Committee voted unanimously Wednesday afternoon to adopt a policy focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, jobs and efforts at all public universities in North Carolina. That committee, along with several other board committees, met all day in a theater at the Alex Ewing Performance Place on the UNC School of the Arts campus in Winston-Salem.

The UNC students who attempted to attend Wednesday afternoon’s governance committee meeting said Ed Purchase, the UNC System’s director of public safety operations, told them the conference room was full and all available seats for the public were taken. The purchase prevented students from entering any part of the building where the meeting was being held, they said.

North Carolina law provides that “every person has the right to attend meetings of public agencies, including the Board of Directors and its committees.

UNC System spokesperson Andy Wallace told The N&O on Wednesday that some members of the public were unable to enter the meeting room due to a lack of available seating and because the open session portion of the meeting, during which the vote on the DEI policy took place, was taking place. so short. By the time system staff could make adjustments to allow more people in, Wallace said, the meeting had gone into closed session, during which members of the public are not allowed.

Attorney Mike Tadych of Raleigh said the UNC System’s actions Wednesday to keep the students out of the rally seemed “questionable,” but said it was “not black and white” to him whether those actions violated state law . Tadych said public bodies, including the Board of Directors, are obliged to “take reasonable measures to provide access to public meetings.”

UNC student Samuel Scarborough said he and other members of the Southern Student Action Coalition (SSAC), a progressive student activist group, and TransparUNCy, a group that aims to shed light on political influences on higher education in North Carolina, attended the meeting wanted to attend. “to make our voices heard” and “to be present in the room” when the DEI policy vote took place.

“We didn’t get this opportunity,” Scarborough said.

When asked by The N&O Thursday via email whether the UNC System believed it had followed the state’s open meetings law by preventing students from entering the building, Wallace responded Friday with this statement: “All UNC meetings board of directors and full board meetings are live streamed and available to the public via PBS NC. Chancellor, campus staff, UNC system staff, PBS NC technical staff and the board itself are in the room to attend the meetings. Seats are reserved for the media. Any open seating will be available to the general public on a first-come, first-served basis.”

Students say they were kept out of the meeting

Although the Board of Directors typically meets at the UNC System office in Raleigh, the council meets twice a year at one of the system’s 17 campuses. The board’s meetings are open to the public, although for reasons specified by state law it may call a closed session and meet without the public present.

The board held its meetings in April at the UNC School of the Arts, with the Catawba Theater in the Alex Ewing Performance Place serving as the meeting room for all of its committee meetings on Wednesdays and the full board meeting on Thursdays.

Scarborough was one of about 10 students from SSAC and TransparUNCy who attempted to attend Wednesday’s meeting of the board’s University Governance Committee, which started at 3:45 p.m.

Wallace described the following series of events to The N&O Wednesday when a reporter asked why the students were being kept outside: Fred Sellers, the system’s vice president for security and emergency operations, “was informed that four members of the there were members of the public who wanted to get in, Wallace said, but there were only three seats available. One of the four said they would watch the meeting via the livestream the system makes available on its website, Wallace said, and the other three people were allowed in. Sellers then heard that more people wanted to enter the meeting, Wallace said, but by then the board went into closed session.

The open session portion of the meeting, during which the DEI policy vote took place, lasted approximately five minutes.

Alexander Denza, another student with the groups, said the students arrived at the doors of the Alex Ewing Performance Place before the start of the committee meeting. Denza provided the N&O with video of the students’ meeting with Purchase, the UNC System’s director of public safety, which Denza said was filmed starting at 3:40 p.m. — five minutes before the meeting started and 10 minutes before the meeting ended Closed. the public for the closed session portion of the meeting.

In the video, Purchase can be seen standing in front of the building’s main entrance and answering questions from the students. Purchase told the students that there were “three seats open to the public” at the meeting, noting that the other seats were all occupied by university chancellors, their guests and other attendees. The three seats were occupied by faculty and staff from the College of the Arts, Purchase told the students.

Purchase told students the meeting was streamed online and they could watch it through that platform.

When asked by a student in the video how many people had been turned away, Purchase responded that he “hadn’t turned anyone away.”

“You’re the first,” Purchase told the group.

When asked by another student if there was a larger space where the meeting could have been held to accommodate more people, Purchase said he did not know. Purchase also said he did not know how many seats in the theater were occupied by university staff.

Towards the end of the roughly four-minute video, Purchase is seen telling the students, “If you guys are going to hang out, maybe you guys can hang out there too, if that’s okay.” It’s unclear where exactly Purchase was gesturing, but he told the students they were “kind of” blocking access to the building. At various points in the video, one person can be seen accessing the doors to exit the building while two other people enter the building.

Denza told N&O that neither he nor any of the other students he was with were allowed into the conference room or building by system staff on Wednesday afternoon.

Did the board violate the open meeting law?

Both Wallace, speaking to The N&O, and Purchase, as seen speaking to the students on the video, said all available seats for the public were full, citing this as the reason the students were not in the meeting room were allowed to come.

It’s unclear if any exceptions to the state’s open meeting law will be made when a venue reaches its maximum capacity. The Catawba Theater has posted signs outside its doors stating that “occupancy by more than 210 persons is dangerous and unlawful.” It is also unclear whether that occupancy was met on Wednesday.

During a morning committee meeting on Wednesday, additional seats were added to accommodate meeting participants after the initially available seats were all filled. Denza also noted that other government agencies have allowed participants to stand in the meeting room if seating is not available, pointing to photos of attendees lining the walls of a June 2021 meeting of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, where discussions took place over whether journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones would be given a permanent position to teach at the university.

When asked by The N&O on Wednesday whether the room was so full that a fire code or other regulation would make the room unsafe, Wallace said only that the room was full.

Tadych, the lawyer, said court rulings on a related issue indicate that public bodies, such as the Board of Directors, must take “reasonable measures” not to completely exclude members of the public from the meeting. Such measures could include streaming the meeting via video or audio for participants in a crowded meeting room, Tadych said.

In a lawsuit cited by Tadych, “the public was excluded only because there was too much space and was not allowed to enter the meeting room for the convenience of the body.” The agency also introduced a ticketing policy for entry into the meeting, which was “found to be unreasonable because it was introduced without prior notice to the public.”

Two courts found that “the government agency’s use of streaming and overflow areas where the meeting could be viewed via audio/visual feeds was reasonable,” Tadych said.

Although Board of Directors meetings are streamed live, it does not appear that overflow space to view the stream was made available to students on Wednesday as the room filled up. Tadych said he was unsure whether merely offering a livestream of the meeting, but not a space to view it, would be considered an attempt to provide reasonable access to the meeting.

The state’s open meetings law says anyone can seek a ruling from a superior court on whether a government entity violated the law. If the court were to find that the agency violated the law, the court could find that actions taken during the agency meeting were “null and void.”

Denza told The N&O that the students plan to file a complaint with the North Carolina Attorney General’s office for not being allowed into the meeting. That agency “issues advisories reminding government agencies of their obligations under these laws and how to comply,” according to its website.

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