In her spring 2013 platform, then-candidate and now Student Council co-president Lanie Schlessinger ’15 wrote, “I would like to continue to do whatever possible to increase the transparency and accessibility of StuCo. Though we publicize our efforts and accomplishments across many mediums, (DG write-ups for weekly meetings, campus-wide emails, Twitter, Facbeook), it still seems that there is a kink in the dialogue between the student body and StuCo [sic].”
Similarly, Jason Heo ’15, Student Council’s other co-president, wrote in his platform that student government’s new structure will have “very efficient systems in place to create more transparency and broaden representation.”
Given Schlessinger and Heo’s promised commitment to increasing transparency and accessibility, the Phoenix was quite excited to see just what StuCo had planned. What would these “very efficient systems” for increasing transparency be? Would StuCo perhaps start recording its meetings? Would they update their website so that it includes biographies for all its current members?
As it turns out, StuCo, or as it is now sometimes called, CamCo, had something far more dramatic in store. According to the Daily Gazette’s February 26 StuCo report, as of March 1, “CamCo meetings will take place completely off the record.” Writers will no longer be allowed to report on what happens during StuCo meetings. Instead, they “will report on summaries provided by CamCo members after the meeting.” In short, to work out the “kink in the dialogue,” StuCo has decided that the best course of action is to severely restrict media access to its weekly meetings.
Confused? So are we.
The language in the report is enough to make anyone who values transparency cringe. But just so there is no doubt about the implications of StuCo’s new policy, let us be clear as to what this means. Meetings by StuCo, an organization whose mission, according to its constitution, is “to serve, represent, and protect the interests of the students of Swarthmore College,” can no longer be reported on by members of the press. While meetings are still hypothetically open to all, reporters will not be permitted to cover anything they hear discussed unless it is mentioned in the summaries provided or StuCo members agree to meet separately with the reporter to discuss it. In effect, news agencies must now obtain permission from members of StuCo before they can cover what is discussed in their meetings.
It does not take a political theorist to understand why such a decision is troublesome. Indeed, the word “troublesome” does not do justice to this appallingly authoritarian act. Freedom of information, transparency and an uncensored press are key to the success and integrity of any representative governmental organ, no matter the magnitude and scope of its authority.
StuCo’s decision is analogous to a hypothetical declaration by the U.S. Senate to forbid all journalists from covering any hearing, meeting, vote or session, unless a senator will agree to “bless” their story by meeting with them separately to discuss it. The legislature assumes substantially greater control over the flow of information out of meetings.
One might object that we are being overly hyperbolic. This is StuCo, after all, not the Senate or the House of Representatives. And indeed, given StuCo’s notorious difficulty getting students to do so much as vote in their elections, one can be forgiven for reacting to this news by asking, who cares?
Well, StuCo supposedly does! And it is not only StuCo’s current leaders who have penned plans to increase transparency into their platforms: StuCo members past and present frequently have cited increased accessibility as a personal priority. In fact, StuCo’s constitution declares that to fulfill its mission, the organization “must strive in all its actions to be both transparent and accountable to its constituency.” Such a decision is thus not only blatant hypocrisy on the part of StuCo’s leadership, it is downright unconstitutional.
What might have caused StuCo’s drastic about-face? One likely possibility is that StuCo feels its actions and suggestions have been misconstrued by student press. Thus, StuCo hopes that by forbidding reporters from covering the meetings themselves and forcing them to instead rely on summaries and separate interviews, StuCo could better prevent reporters from publishing any “misunderstandings” of what StuCo is doing.
Sound like something better befitting a dictatorship than an elected legislature? You bet it does. Even if student news outlets have not done due diligence in reporting on StuCo’s plans (and we would argue that generally, we have been appropriately careful), it is hard to see any mishap or misrepresentation, short of something that is knowingly libelous, where StuCo’s decision could amount to anything other than a deliberate attempt to control how their plans are understood or portrayed by the press.
Even if increased control over how StuCo initiatives are perceived is not the reasoning behind this policy, it is most certainly the effect. Indeed, its tactics resemble those used by the world’s most authoritarian governments to curtail freedom of the press. In Eritrea, for example, one of Africa’s most notoriously repressive regimes, reporters are handed instructions by the government on how to cover events, a process eerily reminiscent of StuCo’s new protocol of providing reporters with summaries of what to cover.
It is the mission of journalists to scrutinize and criticize the actions taken by those in power. To do so, the press must be afforded the opportunity to independently examine and analyze their actions. Thus, by taking its meetings off the record, StuCo violates both its own purpose and the purpose of journalism itself.