College Council (CC) set a troubling precedent Tuesday evening when it banned audio recordings of its weekly meeting and failed to communicate a consistent set of rules to attendees.
Audio recording became a point of contention at last week’s lengthy meeting, which included an open floor debate about the University’s divestment from companies active in Israel. When the debate began, CC Chair Eric Holmberg announced that no photographs could be taken, but did not mention audio recordings. A Maroon reporter assigned to cover the meeting had been recording on her phone, but stopped and erased her recording when a representative told her it was illegal to record. As the meeting continued, a presenter from U of C Divest pointed out another attendee in the front row recording the discussion. Only then did Holmberg announce that audio recordings would not be allowed at the meeting.
Because these meetings are public and on the record, recording their proceedings has been routine and uncontroversial in the past. In order to avoid further confusion, The Maroon inquired about Student Government (SG)’s recording policy before this Tuesday’s meeting. Citing the sensitive nature of the agenda, Holmberg told The Maroon that audio recording would be prohibited for the entirety of the meeting, but that photography would be permitted until the beginning of the debate on divestment.
Holmberg said the decision was made after consulting with Center for Leadership and Involvement advisors, who told CC that the decision on recordings is ultimately up to SG, since there is no law or University policy that requires SG to allow recording. Holmberg said that though The Maroon is typically welcome to record and photograph CC meetings for the purposes of reporting, the divestment debate was an exception. “We want to ensure that representatives are able to speak openly, and recording would hinder that,” he said in an e-mail to a Maroon news editor.
The Maroon sent several reporters to the meeting to ensure that everything on the agenda—from Dean of the College John Boyer’s remarks to the divestment vote—would be covered without breaking any of the rules as they had been explained to us. The standing-room-only meeting began with a request from Holmberg that attendees be on their best behavior, but no announcement about recordings was made. After Deans Boyer and Michele Rasmussen spoke and exited, it was announced that recordings “of any kind” would not be allowed for the remainder of the meeting. Additionally, no non-CC attendee was to be identified or quoted without their express permission. The ban on recordings led to confusion during the divestment debate when one student said that someone on the other side of the room was making her feel unsafe by taking pictures. CC then clarified that the ban extended to photography and that the individual would have to delete the photos after the event.
If CC is going to exercise its right to arbitrarily decide which meetings may be recorded and which may not, it must do so with greater clarity and forewarning. This is not to say that it should exercise this right, however. CC owes full transparency to the undergraduates it represents, meaning that recordings—audio, photo, or video—should only be prohibited at its weekly meetings under extraordinary and clearly defined circumstances.
In the meeting, the recording ban was introduced as a reaction to concerns about safety from members of the audience. These concerns are understandable, but do not necessitate a policy change given the public nature of these meetings and the overarching issue of transparency in SG. Civility and decency are as much a part of a culture of healthy debate as transparency and accountability are, but liberal society is predicated on the idea that one need not be sacrificed for the other.
Per CC’s bylaws, members represent “the legitimate voice of the College student body.” What members say and how they vote at meetings should be made available to all undergraduates, not just those who can attend meetings. An account of what members said on Tuesday will be available in the meeting’s minutes, but in the absence of audio and video recordings, minutes (which are approved by CC and often posted online almost a full week after each meeting) are the only publicly available documentation of what happened.
Holmberg’s suggestion that debate on the topic of divestment could be limited by the pressure of recording is unsettling. CC is not a training ground for students to experiment with ideas over which they are unready or unwilling to take ownership. The salience of the BDS issue makes accountability of participants in the discussion, which recordings serve to enforce, especially important.
Week to week, bans on recording will directly impact The Maroon’s beat coverage of SG; when moments of controversy arise at CC, these bans will affect everyone. Divestment is the most heated issue CC has faced in recent memory. The debate and vote on this weighty question went relatively smoothly, to the credit of Holmberg and CC. In the leadup to the meeting, however, a decision was made that limited the accountability of CC to its constituents. We hope that in the future CC will commit to maintaining its usual standards of openness, regardless of the decision before it.
—The Maroon Editorial Board