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IRE calls for change in Texas university’s public records policy

Investigative Reporters and Editors has joined the Society of Professional Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in asking administrators at Tarleton State University to stop barring instructors from assigning journalism students to request public records from the school.

The University, part of the Texas A&M System, is enforcing a policy that prohibits employees from filing open records requests or encouraging others to do so.

The text of the letter is below:

December 8, 2010

Dr. F. Dominic Dottavio
President, Tarleton State University

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

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.

Sincerely,

Hagit Limor
President, Society of Professional Journalists
hlimor@spj.org

Neil Ralston
Vice President for Campus Chapter Affairs, Society of Professional Journalists
nralston@spj.org

Lucy Dalglish
Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
ldalglish@rcfp.org

Mark Horvit
Executive Director, Investigative Reporters and Editors
mhorvit@ire.org

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