Letter To The Editor

Governmental oversight in recent changes

Change to Executive Board Special Rules of Order inconsistent with New York State law

By Bryan Johns February 28, 2018

Two weeks ago, the Rensselaer Union Executive Board adopted the following changes to the Rensselaer Union Executive Board Special Rules of Order, limiting the rights of individual people:

“Any party who intends on doing so must make it known to everyone present at the start of the recording and must immediately stop recording when asked to by the President. The President may also request that all copies of an audio or video recording be deleted in front of the President if there is reason to believe the recording captured sensitive or confidential information. The Executive Board does not condone livestreaming of meetings of any kind. The Executive Board or its members will not actively take part in or allow livestreaming meetings. These policies are adopted to ensure the privacy of any party presenting sensitive financial or personal information to the Board and to allow the Board to freely express its opinions without interruption from biased parties.”

In a sentence, this decision by the Executive Board was illogical, excessive, and is an affront to anyone who cares about government accountability.

The first sentence is contradictory to New York State law. The changes made by the Rensselaer Union Executive Board require that you have to announce your recording and that the president of the Union can tell you to stop at any time. New York State allows one-party consent for recordings, meaning you must only have the consent of one interested party (i.e. you, the recorder) of a conversation to legally record the discussion (https://poly.rpi.edu/s/reclaw). You are not required to make an announcement or seek consent to record at any point.

The second sentence violates your rights letting by the president of the Union dictate your use of personal property without your consent. This policy states that the president of the Union can, at any time, request for you to delete any audio or visual recording if they believe it captured “sensitive or confidential information.” Your phone is your property, which means you have the right to prevent others from searching through it. There is also a lack of definition for “sensitive or confidential information,” giving the president of the Union jurisdiction to decide the extent of said information. If the Executive Board believes something is confidential or sensitive, they should not discuss it during a meeting with the public. This passage gives the president of the Union the unnecessary power of controlling what is published from an open meeting—something a closed meeting already solves. Rensselaer Union procedure dictates that closed meetings are when all parties not involved in the running of the meeting are asked to leave the room until the end of the closed portion of the meeting. There is a provision by which select parties can be invited back into the closed meeting. If there is any sensitive or confidential information, the information gets discussed in this closed portion and there’s no need to worry about anyone recording it. The new Executive Board policy itself says that the public should feel comforatable recording during “open portions of the meeting,” so there’s no need for this section.

The third sentence of the policy impedes students from participating in Executive Board meetings. With this new policy, no one is allowed to livestream a meeting, under any circumstances. The only reason I can come up with for why the Executive Board decided to completely ban livestreaming is due to the fact that, once you livestream something, it’s out there for the world to see. Since the data is already out there, there’s no good reason to delete the video after the fact just because it’s a livestream. It’s alright for anyone to come watch the meeting, to be involved in their campus and community, but you deny the ability to get involved, learn, and take part in what’s going on just because they couldn’t make it to a meeting at that specific time?

The last sentence on privacy is a farce: to expect privacy during an open meeting is to expect rain on a sunny day. As I previously discussed, and this is a newsflash for the Executive Board, if you’re running a meeting correctly you’re already maintaining the privacy of any party presenting sensitive financial or personal information. Robert’s Rules of Order and specific policies regarding procedure exist for this reason: so you don’t misstep and release information that shouldn’t be released. Furthermore, how would people watching a meeting on a livestream, or recording a video of the meeting, get in the way of freely expressing opinions? Some people I’ve talked to have said they’re worried about being taken out of context or being misquoted. If anything, having a video that you can pair with the Executive Board meeting minutes helps make what was said that much more clear.

We’ve seen students become more engaged during past meetings due to the availability of livestreamed videos. Multiple students asked questions during the town hall meeting hosted by the Student Government on October 3, 2017, and the recent livestream of the Executive Board meeting on January 18 was viewed by almost 300 people. We know that livestreams are effective in engaging students and fostering participation; why wouldn’t you encourage this? Right now, there is only one comprehensive publication a year (the Union Annual Report), that lets students know what is happening with the money that they had to pay as their Activity Fee. People have a right to transparency when it comes to their money.

To any Executive Board members who might be reading this, you have a responsibility to the students of RPI to make the right and moral decisions. As members of the Rensselaer Union Student Government, you are accountable for your decisions, and your decisions affect the whole campus. If you face backlash for a decision, you have to ask why the backlash exists. If you made a moral decision, then the detractors don’t matter. However, if you made the wrong decision, you need to recognize, learn, and move forward. At the end of the day, having recordings and livestreams of meetings increases student involvement and improves transparency, and there is no reason that you or any other representatives should ever be against it.

To my fellow RPI students, never stop advocating for transparency. The Student Government at RPI answers to you, and you can build it up or tear it down as much as you desire. You have a right and duty to participate, to elevate the just, and to cast out the corrupt. Never forget that you are in charge and that you can drive change for good.