November 13, 2017

DeVos Department Tries to Block Public Streaming of Student Debt Hearing

DeVos Department Tries to Block Public Streaming of Student Debt Hearing

Staff of the U.S. Department of Education this morning refused to let attendees live-stream its negotiated rulemaking meeting, the first in a series of sessions where the Trump-DeVos department is aiming to roll back Obama-era rules to protect students and taxpayers from predatory practices by for-profit colleges. It then actively resisted proposals from negotiators representing veterans, students, and consumers to allow live-streaming until, after extensive debate, finally caving to what should be an obvious point: This is an open government meeting whose record should not be censored.

Charlotte Hancock of the Center for American Progress-affiliated Higher Ed Not Debt project began a live-stream as the meeting began at 9:00 am today in a large meeting room at a Holiday Inn close to the Department’s Washington DC headquarters.  She was halted by an Education Department staffer who said that the meetings are public, but live-streaming is not allowed. Hancock pushed back for several minutes back, but the staffer insisted they wouldn’t begin the negotiations while the stream was going.

When the meeting began, four negotiators — Joseline Garcia of the United States Student Association, Ashley Harrington of the Center for Responsible Lending, Will Hubbard of Student Veterans of America, and Abby Shafroth of the National Consumer Law Center — all objected to the Department’s refusal to stream the event.

Harrington said, “It is a disservice to not allow the public access to the hearing.”

The Department’s designated negotiator Annmarie Weisman responded that “people had concerns that their every word was being recorded,” suggesting that blocking a livestream might encourage more open negotiations.

Hubbard, a Marine veteran, retorted that opening the meetings to the public should actually encourage negotiators to open their minds to policy solutions.

After the four advocates had argued, each very briefly, in favor of public access, the panel moderator advised negotiators against “echoing” each other, and advised them only to speak when they had something new to add.

Last year, while the Department was holding a similar meeting to establish the very rules that the DeVos department is now working to replace, a mediator assigned to the panel objected when students started to record a session. That objection was quickly overruled when some negotiators defended the right of public access.

As the negotiators today proceeded to develop ground rules, Hubbard and Shafroth formally proposed that the committee meetings, and meetings of its financial responsibility subcommittee, be “open to the public, including all forms of live or recording media.” Department officials, perhaps having reviewed the First Amendment during a break in the proceedings, did not immediately object. But other negotiators were not done objecting.

Aaron Lacey, a lawyer with Thompson Coburn, a firm that has represented the disgraced ITT Tech and other for-profit colleges, pushed back on opening the subcommittee, saying he doubted many people would watch anyway, and asserting that livestreaming “could have a chilling, negative effect” on discussions. Kelli Hudson Perry Assistant Vice President for Finance and Controller Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute urged that the subcommittee meetings not be recorded, citing the technical nature of the discussions.

After a break, Weisman from the Department resumed her opposition to any filming, expressing concern that the Department was not making its own video (or a transcription). She cited budget concerns. She said that if there are independent live streams “people can edit video,” potentially distorting what occurred. But that was a weak argument, because people could edit any video, including one made by the Department.

A video recording provides the public with the most accurate record of what is occurring. It also allows all the broke students who have been defrauded and abused by for-profit colleges to see exactly what is going on. That may well be the main reason that Department resisted.

By 11:30 most of the meeting had been consumed with the live-streaming issue. Some negotiators continued to resist; two argued that only a professional, not an individual, recording would be appropriate. The issue of the financial responsibility subcommittee was set aside pending legal research. And finally, negotiators stopped objecting, and the Department was seemingly shamed into dropping its objections to allowing the public to live-stream a public meeting. But a final vote has not occurred, and two and half hours into the meeting it’s unclear whether a member of the public would be stopped from live-streaming. If you do, I’m in the room, and I will stand up and defend you. The First Amendment should govern the default position.

UPDATE 1:40 pm: After lunch, Department of Education official Weisman resumed her attack on live-streaming the event, saying that because the public had not been notified that live-streaming was permitted, and because there was no official video being made, there should be no live-streaming by attendees. Someone in the audience then pointed out that an audience member was live-streaming, and the moderator asked that the streaming stop. Then the meeting facilitator moved that live-streaming be expressly banned.  We’re now a half day into the rulemaking, and we’re still hung up on the Department’s refusal to allow people to record this public meeting. Weisman then seemed to advocate a passive-aggressive position that the Department is against live-streaming but maybe can’t stop it. The faciliator then said she was not sure the event can go forward if the negotiators don’t agree on something. The proceeding is stuck. I have to go to a meeting. Back later.

UPDATE 3:30 pm: The Department shut down the meeting again for nearly an hour to discuss internally the live-stream issue. When the meeting reconvened, Weisman said the Department was pursuing, as an alternative to allowing live-streaming, the possibility of “an audio recording that would be made available at some point after” the meeting — with no guarantees as to when. The exhausted negotiators have accepted that for today — letting the Department look into whether they can make a recording. Not clear to me what that means for whether folks can live-stream today. OMG America.

This article also appears on HuffPost.