Today, leaders from journalism and First Amendment advocacy groups sent a letter to Tarleton State University challenging a controversial open-records policy.
The Texas A&M University System, of which Tarleton is a part, has a policy allowing professors to be disciplined and even fired if they instruct their students to file open-records requests with the university or the university system. Tarleton journalism professor Dan Malone, co-chairman of the Light of Day Project, run by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, recently ran afoul of this policy.
Here's an excerpt from of the system's response after The Associated Press broke the story:
Rod Davis, a spokesman for the A&M University System, said the release of information would not be stifled because of the policy and that students can make such records requests on their own.
"It does not prevent (students) from getting public information," he said. "It specified in a very, very narrowly drawn manner (the) way they can do so. It absolutely does not inhibit their ability to find the information."
Heads of the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to Tarleton's president, F. Dominic Dottavio, and provost Gary Peer, urging them to abandon the policy.
Here is the letter:
Dear President Dottavio and Provost Peer:
Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press were troubled to learn that Dan Malone, a Communications Studies instructor at Tarleton State University, was told by school officials that he could be disciplined – perhaps even fired – for assigning his students to file open records requests with the university.
We believe that such action, supposedly allowable under a policy through the Texas A&M System that governs Tarleton State, would violate Malone’s free-speech rights, his academic freedom and the 1973 Texas Public Information Act.
Like many journalism instructors across the country, Malone has encouraged his students to file open records requests as a practical lesson. This process led to stories about a campus-crime reporting problem in 2006. It also led to a story about the cancellation of the controversial play “Corpus Christi” this year.
Indeed, it is the duty of journalism educators to teach students how to access records under freedom of information laws. Without such training, students can't fulfill the role our founding fathers intended for the Fourth Estate to serve as watchdogs on behalf of the citizenry.
The message sent to Malone is an unconscionable action that damages the university’s reputation and insults the citizens of Texas who expect Tarleton and other state schools to teach civic responsibility. Teachers who require their students to conduct research through open records requests are providing hands-on lessons about our system of government and the importance of open records.
It would behoove administrators in the Texas A&M System and at Tarleton State not to let this controversy fester any longer, and we urge you to take action that reveals the university supports the concept and practice of open government. We ask that you assure Malone and every other teacher that they will not be reprimanded or punished for requiring their students to file open records requests with any appropriate governmental entity, including Tarleton State.
We encourage you to contact us if you would like to further discuss this matter.
President, Society of Professional Journalists
Vice President for Campus Chapter Affairs, Society of Professional Journalists
Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Executive Director, Investigative Reporters and Editors