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TAMU System Open Records Policy Harms Faculty, Students
December 17, 2010

TAMU System Open Records Policy Harms Faculty, Students

By Shaun Springfield
The Texas A&M University System’s open records policy has taken a lot of flak over the past couple of weeks, and rightly so.

In early November, Tarleton State University journalism instructor Dan Malone became the subject of much controversy after Tarleton State filed an inquiry about whether an A&M professor was able to direct a student to file a request for public information with Texas A&M University System.

According to Texas A&M University System Information and Communications Policy 61.01.02 on Public Information, “System employees are not authorized to submit public information requests to system members while acting in their official capacity.”

The policy, enacted in 1997 explains that professors are permitted to file open records requests as private citizens, but not in their professional role as instructors.

“The relevant system regulation provides that an employee may make requests to a system institution such as Tarleton only in the individual’s capacity as a private citizen, not within the individual’s capacity as a university employee,” Andrew Strong, general counsel for Texas A&M System, wrote in an Oct. 27, 2010, letter to Tarleton President Dominic Dottavio.

The act of a professor instructing a student to file a request falls within the professor’s official capacity and is violation of the current system. According to the policy, professors who violate this policy could face disciplinary action and possible firing.

The system’s policy of not allowing a professor to direct a student to file a request could have serious repercussions for the future of all Texas A&M-University branch journalism and communications programs.

The policy unnecessarily handicaps journalism professors from adequately teaching their students about public records law and journalistic research.
Filing information requests is an essential part of working as a journalist. And understanding the process by which to file a request is an essential part of a journalism student’s education. A journalism class taught by a professor whose core instructional methods are taken away by its own institution, hampers the education of students in that program. Furthermore, the ramifications go beyond the classroom. Do I really want to be the only young professional in the newsroom whose professors were hampered by such a policy?

Students rely on their professors to teach them how to be the best they can be in their field. In journalism that means knowing how to file public information requests and getting experience filing them as a student.

The current policy only excludes employees from making requests so students are free to submit them themselves. Isn’t that a tricky loophole?

What student is going to file an open records request with Texas A&M University System if they have not received instruction on how and why such filings would be useful or necessary?

Currently, if a student is assigned an article to cover school financing the student could face an uphill battle gathering information. If the student is not made aware of how to use the request for information the student will be flying blind. The result will be a poorer article, a poorer grade and an overall poorer campus publication because of it.

If the system does not change this rule, it may see a backlash of students and professors who will not tolerate such restrictions.

Texas A&M’s leading competition, the University of Texas at Austin, does not have this policy. Nor do Texas Tech University, Texas State University-San Marcos or any other university in the state.

The Student Press Law Center is investigating the policy, and many other journalism programs have already voiced their opinion on this policy.

The Texas A&M Board of Regents should place the removal of this policy at the forefront of their agenda in the coming months because this problem will not go away quietly; it will only grow louder as the public outcry increases.

This story was originally published by The Ranger, the student newspaper at San Antonio College on Dec. 15, 2010.

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  • Jay Carey

    As any real-world journalist knows, the reason that public records and open meetings laws exist is because government – at all levels – wants to remain secret. This applies at all levels, from the White House to Town Square . . . and obviously at the university board level. Overwhelmingly there is no reason for an agency to keep something secret – it’s usually just a matter of principle, although it often is a matter of ignorance or laziness on the part of a bureaucrat or desk sergeant.

    Every decent-sized newspaper has an attorney on retainer – not to file FOIA requests (any reporter can do that), but to get a judge to force the release of legally public documents when the FOIA is rejected. In general, recalcitrant agencies know they will lose, but they make it as hard as possible in hopes that less well-funded citizens will be discouraged for exercising their rights.

    Certainly any school that claims to provide journalism training is committing a fraud if its students graduate without this training.

    On the other hand, my reading of the rules in this case is that it applies only if the professor is directly involved in requiring, planning or designing the FOIA. Using the student as a surrogate, in effect. Certainly there is no rule against instructing students about this journalism tool and how to use it. If a student didn’t apply this knowledge to a story assignment, I’d question his initiative.

  • Rachel K

    I think we should give trust to our Journalism students and professors to utilize the information for the intended purposes of learning and spreading knowledge, rather than assume that they will abuse the information for personal gain.

    I should think others would want “proof” behind the articles, evidence supporting claims or disproving claims; it’s journalistic integrity.

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