Jake Milich’s UCF student government presidential and university Board of Trustees campaign has been one full of adversity.
Milich has been accused of breaking several SGA campaigning rules and is currently defending himself against numerous election violation affidavits. Milich and his campaign have a violation hearing this Wednesday.
These student government violation hearings have always been open in the past, however, Milich’s hearing is set to be behind closed doors — with no press or students allowed.
“SGA voting and elections violations have always been public the through state Sunshine Laws, [which] specifically states any collegial body must hold open and public meetings with advanced notice,” former SGA Supervisor of Elections Nicklas Remington Bajema said.
“From my time as supervisor, not only was I required to give advanced notice and post the date time and location of the meetings, it was open to the public and had been attended by the press previously. It is illogical to bar the public from these meetings because it violates Florida law, and it obscures the public sight from what goes on within SGA.
“Every year people running for office argue for transparency — current administration included. So why is it so hard to act with transparency? If there is nothing to hide, then what is wrong with opening the metaphorical doors of SGA to the public? Openness in these meetings have been a long standing precedent, and was highly encouraged,” Bajema continued.
Milich sued UCF, Dr. Maribeth Ehasz, SGA President and UCF Trustee Cait Zona and Supervisor of Elections Whitney Barnes, asking a judge to step in and stop the secret hearings, prevent FERPA from being violated and protect his First Amendment rights. Orange County Ninth Circuit Judge Janet C. Thorpe granted Milich’s motion for an expedited hearing, but denied his emergency motion for preliminary injunctive relief, which he had asked be granted without the defendants being present to argue their side.
When the judge denied the preliminary relief, the judge stated:
“As is commonly the case, MILICH fails to demonstrate a substantial likelihood of success on the merits. As a result, this Court need not address the remaining factors and denies MILICH’S motion for preliminary injunctive relief. Given the time sensitive nature of the Student Government elections, however, this Court will schedule an expedited hearing regarding MILICH’S Complaint seeking declaratory relief, permanent injunctive relief, and damages.”
As Knight News previously reported, an unintended consequence of the 5th District Court of Appeal’s decision in Knight News vs. UCF case was the confusion and uncertainty about when FERPA applies and whether that would close SGA meetings just like the administrative conduct board meetings.
In the Knight News case, Ninth Judicial Circuit Judge Patricia Doherty ruled FERPA applied to SGA election violation affidavits and names of students campaigning for a spot on UCF’s BOT were properly redacted from the affidavits — despite the undisputed fact that the SGA election violation hearings always were open and the names would become public at the open hearing.
Judge Doherty ruled a completely different type of hearing at issue in the lawsuit, the traditionally closed-door university administrative conduct board dealing with violations of university rules like hazing — not SGA discipline — was effectually closed due to state law requiring compliance with FERPA.
The Fifth DCA affirmed Doherty’s ruling closing university administrative hearing without discussion, which Judge Thorpe appears poised to extend to SGA election violation hearings for the first time ever, at least for now. Thorpe included a footnote pointing out the Knight News case is still on appeal and could change.
Knight News Digital News Director Derek Lowe blames UCF’s refusal to compromise with Knight News five years ago for UCF’s current legal mess. UCF Deputy General Counsel Youndy Cook rejected a request from Knight News to avoid litigation by adopting a USF policy requiring SGA candidates waive any alleged FERPA privacy rights when they chose to run for office.
“We have a legal crisis in SGA. No one knows what to do, what is secret and what is open. Everyone, from students to university vice presidents, is getting sued and it’s all because UCF and its team of lawyers were too stubborn to compromise. They got their ruling saying FERPA applies to SGA. Now all hell is breaking loose,” Lowe said.
“The UCF Board of Trustees and Chair Marcos Marchena should reign in the administrators wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting for secrecy in court and demand UCF adopt the FERPA waiver USF uses to put an end to the confusion and inevitable stream of lawsuits over FERPA on one side and Florida’s cherished Sunshine Laws on the other.”
The confusion forced Knight News to file a new lawsuit against UCF just this morning, arguing the SGA hearings must be open.
“SGA’s Election Commission does important work,” said Knight News attorney Justin Hemlepp. “It ensures all candidates for public office play by the rules, and its meetings always have been open for anyone to attend. Although Florida and SGA laws both require that the Commission’s meetings be open, UCF has suddenly decided its work should occur behind closed doors. Knight News has asked the court to preserve the status quo and order UCF to let in the sunshine.”
As of now Milich’s closed door campaign violation hearing will continue as planned. Milich will also have a court date before Judge Thorpe on Monday March 21st.
UCF has refused to comment on its decision not to compromise and adopt the USF FERPA waiver.
Knight news will continue to keep you the students informed and fight for your right to know.