A sign outside of the Redwood Bowl informs the public of the campus closure due to COVID-19 on April 13. | Photo by Thomas Lal

Humboldt State Violated California Law by Requiring Registration for a Public Meeting

HSU briefly required registration for two public webinars as a security measure
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HSU briefly required registration for two public webinars as a security measure

Update, April 22: Humboldt State Vice President of Enrollment Management Jason Meriwether penned a letter to The Lumberjack, making the case that HSU did not violate California law. Read it here.

Editor’s note: Grace Caswell is a student in Journalism Department Chair Vicky Sama’s media law course. Almost the entire staff of The Lumberjack has also had Sama as an instructor in journalism courses.

Humboldt State University hosted public meetings via Zoom to inform the public about its projected enrollment decline and budget cuts April 13 and 15. However, as a security measure protecting the university from “Zoom bombings,” HSU enacted mandatory registration requirements prior to entering the meetings in violation of California state law.

“Zoom bombings” describe a new term for an infiltration or hijacking of a Zoom session with the intent to harass and disrupt the session. With an increase in Zoom users, from 10 million in December 2019 to more than 200 million in March of 2020, Zoom CEO Eric S. Yuan released a statement April 1 detailing additional measures being taken to enhance Zoom security over the next 90 days.

HSU Vice President of Enrollment Jason Meriwether claimed HSU has experienced Zoom bombings and enacted the registration as an additional security measure. The additional measures required the public to respond twice via Google forms before being sent the Zoom meeting invitations, basically giving the administration, a government body, the power to sift through and deny public access.

An approved registration screen for one of HSU’s enrollment and budget webinars held April 13 and 15.

HSU Chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication and media law professor Vicky Sama alerted and engaged with HSU administration, specifically Meriwether, on the violations being committed.

“Using ‘security’ reasons to require the public additional registration to access a public meeting on the people’s business does not satisfy the openness and liberties that our Constitution provides,” Sama said in an email. “In addition to violating state law that I explained in my earlier email.”

“The unintentional message is that some people are not welcome and/or we at HSU don’t want the public to know what is going on.”

Vicky Sama, HSU journalism chair

Sama said the additional requirement for the public to register prior to receiving an invitation was tantamount to reviewing their qualifications.

“The email did not justify the registration nor did it outline its purpose, raising suspicions that the university doesn’t want certain people to attend or know what is going on,” Sama wrote. “The unintentional message is that some people are not welcome and/or we at HSU don’t want the public to know what is going on.”

Specifically, HSU’s actions against the public violated the Brown Act and Bagley-Keene Act. Both California state acts provide assurance of rights to the public. Sommer Ingram Dean, staff attorney for the Student Press Law Center, explained how these security measures directly conflict with both acts.

“Section 54953.3 of Brown says ‘A member of the public shall not be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of a legislative body of a local agency, to register his or her name, to provide other information, to complete a questionnaire, or otherwise to fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance,’” Dean explained in an email.

“Section 11124 of Bagley Keene says ‘No person shall be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of a state body, to register his or her name, to provide other information, to complete a questionnaire, or otherwise to fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance.'”

Sommer Ingram Dean, staff attorney for Student Press Law Center

Additionally, Dean cited the Bagley-Keene Act and the measures it provides ensuring the public’s rights.

“Section 11124 of Bagley Keene says ‘No person shall be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of a state body, to register his or her name, to provide other information, to complete a questionnaire, or otherwise to fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance,’” Dean wrote.

Sama informed Meriwether of the illegal activity violating both the Brown and Bagley-Keene Acts April 13, citing the specific sections mentioned above. In response, Meriwether continued with the registration in place and adjusted the meetings by offering public links.

“Since this issue was just raised today, it appears to me that the best thing to do is to move forward with today as planned,” Meriwether said in an email. “We will also explore hosting a third event. We will provide both the option for registration and the public link for the already scheduled event on Wednesday. The entire point of having these events was to be transparent.”

Since then, the links to the April 13 and 15 meetings went public. However, the concern more surrounds HSU’s decision to filter through the public’s right to access a public meeting regarding matters directly impacting them.

The registration requirement, Sama wrote, amounts to intimidation and goes against the spirit of openness and transparency, and “reeks of sneakiness.” In a time of crisis, government bodies can use the mirage of security to deny the public their right to voice their opinions. Ultimately, it can amount to an abuse of power against the public.

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One Comment

  1. John C. Baker John C. Baker Monday, April 20, 2020

    As a HSU journalism grad who now serves as an elected official, this concerns me. As the author notes, attendees at a public meeting are not required to register or identify themselves, even in person. Worst part is that it’s easily avoided:The school district upon which I serve had a very simple way to prevent Zoom bombings — everyone joining the call is put on attendee status with sharing, cameras, and mics off. The staff and Board members are listed as panelists, with such privileges.

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