Closed Meetings Under FOIA Turn Fifty: The Old, the New, and What to Do

Tyler C. Southall* 

The Commonwealth of Virginia boasts the location of the first permanent English settlement in the nation and takes pride in its long history of meetings of representative bodies. Since 1968, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) has ensured the public access to those meetings in order to provide that “[t]he affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government.” Although FOIA allows meetings to be closed to the public for various topics of discussion,3 one might expect to find that given Virginia’s long history and the law’s expectations of openness, Virginians would have long ago reached agreement on the law and practice surrounding open and closed meetings. However, since the beginning of 2016, legislators have pushed stricter penalties for violating FOIA, an elite public university found itself in a firestorm over a closed meeting, the Supreme Court of Virginia weighed in on a closed meeting case, and the Virginia Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council (“FOIA Council”) issued opinions reminding government entities of the nuances of the law. In a political environment that has become increasingly contentious, elected and appointed officials have reason to fear for the legal, ethical, and political implications of their actions every time they enter a closed meeting.

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* County Attorney, Dinwiddie County, Virginia. J.D., 2009, University of Virginia School of Law; B.A., 2006, University of Virginia. All views expressed by the author are his own and not necessarily the views of Dinwiddie County.

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