Journalism groups protest Texas A&M’s open-records proposal

Romenesko Misc.
Representatives from 15 journalism groups are criticizing a proposal that could result in punishment for Texas A&M University System journalism instructors who assign their students to file open-records requests with institutions in the system. A letter to school officials says: “It seems no coincidence that the System’s new policy interpretation follows closely on the heels of stories developed by the students of journalism instructor Dan Malone that uncovered problems in crime reporting on the Tarleton State campus and that inquired into the reasons for cancellation of a highly controversial student play.”

Dec. 23, 2010

Chancellor Mike McKinney,
Texas A&M University System

President Dominic Dottavio,
Tarleton State University

Dr. Gary Peer,
Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Tarleton State University

Dear Chancellor McKinney, President Dottavio, and Provost Peer:

The undersigned organizations, representing thousands of journalists and journalism educators across this country, join in concerns that have previously been expressed to you regarding proposed actions at your institutions that could result in punishment for journalism instructors who assign their students to file open-records requests with institutions in the A&M University System.

It seems no coincidence that the System’s new policy interpretation follows closely on the heels of stories developed by the students of journalism instructor Dan Malone that uncovered problems in crime reporting on the Tarleton State campus and that inquired into the reasons for cancellation of a highly controversial student play. It is unconscionable that a public university would seek to use bad and potentially illegal policies in order to squelch investigations by its own students, who appear to have performed a valuable public service in holding our government accountable to its citizens.

We believe that the basic regulation in question, which bans System employees, in their official capacities, from filing open-records requests with System institutions, is probably illegal and represents an unauthorized limitation on the policy set out in the state’s Public Information Act, which entitles each citizen, except as expressly limited by law, to “complete information at all times about the affairs of government.” Beyond the question of legality, however, the rule is simply bad public policy. There appears to be no compelling public interest that would justify the university in constraining the exercise of so important a right expressly conferred by the Texas Legislature.

Moreover, the recent interpretation of the policy that would ban instructors from directing their students to file such records requests is particularly egregious. We believe that interpretation violates not only the Public Information Act, but the free-speech rights and academic freedom of the instructors. It is in fact the duty of journalism instructors to teach their students – as indeed all citizens should be taught – about how to obtain public records under state law. Investigating the activities of government is one of the most important roles that journalists play, and one that should be honored by universities that teach journalism – and most certainly by public institutions supported by tax dollars.

We urge you to reconsider the policy in question and its proposed interpretation, and to assure the public, your students, and journalism instructors such as Malone that the Texas A&M System supports open government, academic freedom, and the teaching of watchdog journalism that is so critical to the continuing health of our democracy.

Sincerely,

Megan Kamerick, President
Becky Day, Executive Director,
Journalism and Women Symposium
mekamerick@bizjournals.com
beckyd@jaws.org

Carolyn Whetzel
President, Society of Environmental Journalists

Barbara Ciara
President, UNITY Journalists of Color
Barbara.Ciara@WTKR.com

Bob Meyers
President & COO, National Press Foundation
bob@nationalpress.org

Hollis Towns
President, Associated Press Managing Editors

Ben S. Pollock
President, National Society of Newspaper Columnists
ben.pollock@stanfordalumni.org

Dan Radmacher
President, National Conference of Editorial Writers
Dan.Radmacher@roanoke.com

Dr. Bob Carey
President, National Press Photographers Association

Kathy Y. Times
President, National Association of Black Journalists
kytimes@AOL.COM

Caroline W. Hendrie
Executive Director, Education Writers Association
chendrie@ewa.org

Jane McDonnell
Executive Director, Online News Association
director@journalists.org

Len Bruzzese
Executive Director, Association of Health Care Journalists
bruzzesel@missouri.edu

Alan Bjerga,
President, North American Agricultural Journalists
abjerga@bloomberg.net

The First Amendment Committee
American Society of Journalists and Authors

Ron Spielberger
Executive Director, College Media Advisers
rsplbrgr@memphis.edu

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