The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: It's your government

Jane Wester

Editor-in-chief Jane Wester

To be a journalist means you need to develop some degree of legal expertise.

The Daily Tar Heel is lucky that we still have lawyer friends we can call in a pinch, but mostly, a journalist needs to know her own rights and the legal limits of what she can publish.

In the past two weeks, we’ve needed a detailed understanding of unusual ways to charge someone with a misdemeanor in Orange County and quick training on how to cover potentially widespread arrests at a protest.

Mostly, though, the laws we need new staffers to recite on the fly deal with openness.

Here’s the nutshell: government meetings and records — including the meetings and records of our state university — are, by default, public and open to everyone. Government officials must have a reason to make them private.

This means that when a DTH staffer is told the meeting they’re covering will be closed, they are allowed (by law) and strongly encouraged (by their editors) to ask the group to cite the line in North Carolina’s open meetings law that permits them to close the meeting.

If that sounds easy, just try doing it when you’re the youngest person in the room by 30 years and somebody is trying to not-so-subtly push you out the door.

Records work in much the same way — we’re entitled to them unless a government body can cite a specific reason why we shouldn’t be allowed see them. Historically, UNC has been slow to fulfill requests and obstinate in rejecting what we think should be accessible. The DTH and other media outlets have taken the University to court for public records more than once.

I won’t graduate from UNC for seven months, but I’m already trying to pass my records requests along to younger colleagues, because I know I’m unlikely to get them back while I work here. My friends who graduated in 2015 — more than a year ago — are still forwarding me records as they receive them. 

I love hearing from our alumni, but this is ridiculous.

Today is First Amendment Day. Public records and open meetings aren’t enshrined in the First Amendment, but they certainly honor its spirit.

Four of the First Amendment’s five rights (speech, press, assembly, petition) protect citizens’ ability to speak freely or to hold their government accountable.

Covering a town or university without access to records and meetings is like trying to fix a car without being able to open the hood. It inhibits one of the most important things we do, which is to go to local meetings and read piles of documents because government should be accessible, and we want to make it accessible for you.

Celebrate the First Amendment. Write a letter to your representative, speak at a rally, read your local newspaper and remember that the laws protecting openness apply to you, too.

If UNC gives you a hard time, let me know.

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