Sunrise over V.A. Capitol.
VIRGINIA FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ADVISORY COUNCIL
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA


AO-23-01

April 25, 2001

Ms. Lisa St. Martin

The staff of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your phone conversation of March 22, 2001.

Dear Ms. St. Martin:

You have asked whether the student government at a state university is a public body under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). You indicate that the student government recently met in closed session to discuss whether a recent student government election should be re-held, and voted on the issue while still in the closed session. When members of the student newspaper objected to the closed-session vote as a violation of FOIA, the question arose as to whether the student government was indeed a public body subject to FOIA.

Section 2.1-341 of the Code of Virginia defines a public body as any legislative body; any authority, board, bureau, commission, district or agency of the Commonwealth or of any political subdivision of the Commonwealth, including cities, towns and counties; municipal councils, governing bodies of counties, school boards, and planning commissions; boards of visitors of public institutions of higher education; and other organizations, corporations or agencies in the Commonwealth supported wholly or principally by public funds. (Emphasis added) If an entity fits this definition of a public body, then all of its records must be open for inspection by citizens of the Commonwealth unless specifically exempted by law, and all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public unless specifically exempted by 2.1-344. The policy of FOIA, set forth at 2.1-340.1, dictates that its provisions be liberally construed.

The Attorney General of Virginia has opined that the student senate of a public university is an organization supported wholly or principally by public funds, and thus subject to FOIA.1 In reaching this conclusion, the Attorney General noted that the student senate in that case controlled a budget generated from student fees, allocated funds to various other student organizations, and was responsible for the general management of student government.

Based on the information that you provided to this office, it would appear that the student government in question serves a similar role to the one described by the Attorney General. You indicate that the student government oversees student organizations and controls the budget delegated by the university for such organizations, and oversees student government elections. As such, the student government would fall under the definition of a public body and be subject to all of the requirements of FOIA. In specific reference to the vote taken by the student government in closed session, subsection B of 2.1-344 states that [n]o resolution, ordinance, rule, contract, regulation or motion adopted, passed or agreed to in a closed meeting shall become effective unless the public body, following the meeting, reconvenes in open meeting and takes a vote of the membership on such resolution, ordinance, rule, contract, regulation or motion which shall have its substance reasonably identified in the open meeting. Therefore, the action taken by the student government would not become effective until a vote is held in open session.

Thank you for contacting this office. I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

Maria J.K. Everett
Executive Director

1 1984-85 Op. Atty. Gen. Va. 431. While this opinion was written pursuant to a prior version of FOIA, both the current and prior versions of the law contain identical language which includes entities supported wholly or principally by public funds in the definition of a public body.

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