Friday, December 31, 2010

Aggies Agonize Over Public Information Law

The Academic Plaza as viewed looking east take...Image via WikipediaOfficials at Texas A&M University, the Lone Star state's oldest public university, are in a quandary. It seems that some journalism students at Tarleton State University, which is part of  the Texas A&M system, tried to do something journalistic--apply for public records under the state's Public Information Act (Sec. 552 of the Tex. Govt. Code)--and ran afoul of a near 20-year-old university rule that bans system employees from making public information requests of their employer.

The so-called "A&M" Rule was enacted by the university in the 1990s after it was stuck with the bill for research and compliance from multiple information requests by a disgruntled employee, according to a story in the San Antonio News Express. The hornet's nest was riled when the school's general counsel drafted a letter that extended the ban to include journalism students who were participating in an optional statewide Light of Day project sponsored by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas ("FOIF") to promote investigative journalism by educating students in how to draft public records request letters.

Tarleton administrators sought an opinion from Texas A&M counsel after a student requested information from campus police. The A&M Rule does not preclude students, faculty or staff from making public information requests as individuals, but the university apparently mistook the optional participation in the Light of Day project as a mandatory assignment from journalism faculty.

Before long, 15 nationwide news organizations, including Associated Press and the National Press Foundation, fired off a letter to Texas A&M suggesting the A&M Rule violated the journalism students' First Amendment rights. "It seems no coincidence," the letter states in part, "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."

In light of the ensuing maelstrom, the university's counsel's office is re-examining its interpretation of the A&M Rule. School officials claim their intent was not to inhibit instruction in the Public Information Act, so the journalistic dander that has been raised may soon quiet down. Texas Gov. Rick Perry not too long ago threatened that Texas may secede from the Union, which provides further perspective.

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