PUBLIC MEETINGS, RIGHT OF TV, RADIO AND NEWSPAPER REPORTERS TO ATTEND WITH THEIR EQUIPMENT
The public meeting statute contemplates that state and local boards, commissions and agencies must give notice of their meetings to the representatives of press, radio and television and to permit them to cover such meetings with their equipment. Failure substantially to comply with this law will cast doubt on the validity of their proceedings.
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December 27, 1955
Honorable Jeanette Testu
State Representative, 34th District
2138 ‑ 41st S. W.
Seattle, Washington Cite as: AGO 55-57 No. 179
Dear Mrs. Testu:
In your letter of December 10, 1955, you referred to the well publicized meeting of the Board of Regents of the University of Washington held in Seattle on that date. You indicated that in your judgment this meeting demonstrated an area of uncertainty as to the scope of the public meeting law. You have asked us to examine chapter 216, Laws of 1953, and to express our opinion as to the rights accorded to press, radio and television people to cover public meetings.
Our views on this subject are set forth below.
Chapter 216, Laws of 1953, (codified as chapter 42.32 RCW, 1953 Supp.) provides as follows:
"Section 1. No board, commission, agency or authority of the state of Washington, nor the governing board, commission, [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] agency or authority of any political subdivision exercising legislative, regulatory or directive powers, shall adopt any ordinance, resolution, rule, regulation, order or directive, except in a meeting open to the public and then only at a meeting, the date of which is fixed by law or rule, or at a meeting of which public notice has been given by notifying press, radio and television in the county and by such other means as may now or hereafter be provided by law: Provided, That this act shall not apply to the state legislature, the judiciary, or to those regulatory orders of quasi-judicial bodies applicable only to named parties as distinguished from orders having general effect on the public or a class or group.
"Sec. 2. All meetings, regular and special, of any such board, commission, agency and authority are hereby declared to be public meetings, open to the public at all times: Provided, That nothing contained in this act shall be construed to prevent any such board, commission, agency or authority from holding executive sessions, from which the public is excluded, for purposes other than the final adoption of an ordinance, resolution, rule, regulation, order or directive.
"Sec. 3. The minutes of all regular and special meetings except executive sessions of such boards, commissions, agencies or authorities shall be promptly recorded and such records shall be open to public inspection."
One of the facts of modern governmental life is the trend toward government by commission. There is a tendency to delegate powers, too detailed and time consuming for the legislature, to boards, agencies or commissions. In addition there was evolved a variety of junior taxing districts each governed by [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] boards or commissions. Cities and counties have been authorized by law to delegate some of the technical problems of government to planning commissions and other agencies.
The manner in which these public officials discharge their duties and responsibilities should be of interest to every citizen. The fidelity and intelligence with which these public decisions are made determine the quality and cost of services to the public.
The weakness inherent in such a system is an indifferent apathetic public. Good government is deserving of recognition. Conversely, inept and inadequate government should have its weaknesses exposed.
In America a free press has long been a powerful instrument in espousing the cause of good government. More recently radio and television have been instrumental in instilling in the public a greater awareness of governmental problems.
In the past, some boards and commissions were reluctant to have their deliberations subjected to the spotlight of public scrutiny. In some instances the more controversial decisions were made at special meetings held without the knowledge of the public.
This was regarded as an abuse and the legislature took steps to correct it. The 1953 act applies to every board, agency or authority of the state. It also applies to meetings of city councils, boards of county commissioners, school district directors and the governing bodies of other districts. It specifically exempts the state legislature and the judiciary. In addition, regulatory orders of quasi-judicial bodies applicable only to named parties are excluded.
Any such board, commission or agency is entitled to go into closed executive session. This is deemed desirable in order to consider confidential matters they are not privileged or desirous to disclose. However the final action based on deliberations in executive session must be taken in an open meeting in which the public is enabled to observe how each official casts his vote.
This office has previously issued opinions on the type and sufficiency of notice required. We have ruled that notices must be communicated to newspapers, radio and television stations in the county in which the meetings are held.
[[Orig. Op. Page 4]]
This may be done either directly or through news services. See AGO 53-55 No. 57 [[to A. B. Langlie, Governor on May 28, 1953]]and AGO 53-55 No. 157 [[ (to D. H. Webster, Bureau of Governmental Research on October 29, 1953]]; AGO 55-57 No. 6 [[to Donald R. Webster, Bureau of Governmental Research on January 5, 1955]]. Manifestly it would serve no useful purpose to require notices to be sent to the several communication media unless an opportunity is afforded to attend and to utilize communication equipment. We believe the legislature must have intended that these public meetings be open to television camera crews, radio sound equipment technicians, newspaper reporters and photographers on an equal basis.
In our opinion failure substantially to comply with the requirements of the public meeting law will cast serious doubt on the validity of orders, regulations or legislative acts passed at such meetings.
"* * * Provisions respecting publication and sufficient notice generally are mandatory, and failure to publish or give notice, or to do so substantially in the manner prescribed, renders ordinance or resolution void."
5 McQuillin, Municipal Corporations, 3rd ed. 300.
We recognize that this presents problems. The representatives of press, radio and television have an obligation not to hamper the deliberations. Interference with the orderly conduct of the meetings need not be tolerated. Some space should be reserved for the board or commission members to consider the items on the agenda.
We feel certain however that these problems can be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both the public officials and the news gatherers. We cannot believe that an expanded coverage of important public meetings will make public service less inviting. It could have the commendable result of encouraging public officials to become better informed on the factual basis for their decisions.
We wish it clearly understood that we intend no criticism of the Board of Regents. We are pleased that the governing body of our largest educational institution saw fit to permit the general public to sit in on its deliberations.
Article 1 of our state constitution sets out the Declaration of Rights. Section 5 provides as follows:
[[Orig. Op. Page 5]]
"Freedom of Speech. Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right."
We conclude that press, radio and television people are entitled to cover open public meetings on an equal basis. The chairman has the right and duty to preserve order. We sincerely believe that the working press and broadcasters will regard this right of covering newsworthy meetings as a privilege worthy of preserving. A better informed public could be the result.
We hope the foregoing observations will prove helpful.
Very truly yours,
ANDY G. ENGEBRETSEN
Assistant Attorney General