College Council looks for balance between transparency, safety in public records of weekly meetings

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After students received threats following the widespread digital dissemination of a previous College Council (CC) meeting livestream, CC chose to make its meeting minutes anonymous and not provide live video for its April 23 meeting in an effort to balance transparency with student safety concerns.

During the CC meeting last night, a public Facebook livestream was up for all of the meeting, with the exception of during anti-bias training, and full minutes, including the names of CC members and consenting guests, will be available to all students who sign in through their Google accounts.

These concerns mounted at the April 23 council meeting when CC discussed the potential recognition of the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) as a registered student organization, a proposal that was ultimately rejected by a vote of 8–13–1. CC decided at the beginning of that meeting to anonymize its minutes. No livestream was set up for that meeting, and the April 16 meeting’s livestream was turned off halfway through the meeting.  

At the beginning of the April 23 meeting, CC members cited previous concerns about student safety as the reason for the new anonymity measures. This decision came two weeks after a live video of the April 9 meeting quickly propagated across many outlets. One YouTube video by a white nationalist commentator featuring the livestream gained over 100,000 views as of yesterday. Concerns over the potential “doxxing” of students, meaning the release of personal information online, led to the discussion of anonymity for the April 23 meeting.

The minutes for the April 23 meeting ended up being completely anonymized for the discussion of the WIFI club proposal. Guests were referenced by number – for example, “Guest One” – and CC members’ comments were also anonymous. The final vote was taken by secret ballot. This lack of transparency for CC members’ positions is a countervailing concern to those over student safety. “It’s important to us that we maintain credibility and that people stand behind the things that we say, but obviously student safety is the most important to us,” said CC Co-President Ellie Sherman ’20.

One potential solution that CC is exploring is the possibility of using different levels of transparency for guests and CC members. “We’ve talked about making the default be that guests are anonymized or more visibly providing that option when guests come into the room,” Sherman said. “We’ve also talked a lot about how College Council is a public space, and if you’re coming into that space, you should be able to stand behind what you’re saying if you’ve been elected as a representative.”

Some members of the CC executive board expressed concern that anonymizing the views of CC members for such a contentious vote would be especially harmful. “My stance during the meeting was: I understand if guests do not want to be on the record, but if you run for College Council, in an elected position, you’re making these decisions … and so I think your opinions are very important to be accurately recorded and associated with you,” Parliamentarian Lance Ledet ’21 said. “Basically, what we’ve said last Tuesday is that whenever we’re making a hard choice, we won’t associate opinions with people, and when we’re making easy ones, then we can know who said what.”

The future of the CC livestream program is also unclear. According to Sherman, CC is currently exploring, in collaboration with Williams Students Online (WSO), the possibility of making a live video accessible only to members of the College community. However, WSO has indicated that the technical planning for this would be somewhat extensive. 

While the livestream program has been a recent addition to CC communications, it was viewed at the time of its establishment as essential. “As soon as I was elected, establishing the live minutes and livestream program was a clear and necessary step toward transparency and accountability,” said Michael Rubel ’19, former CC vice president for communications.