A&M System rule spurs criticism from journalists

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A Texas A&M University System regulation may limit professors’ ability to teach about the Texas Public Information Act, according to several UT journalism professors.

The regulation, which has existed since the 1990s, prohibits A&M System employees, including professors, from making public information requests within the A&M System while acting in their official capacity as System employees. The regulation also prohibits instructors from requiring students to make public information requests.

The regulation gained national media attention when the Texas A&M System’s counsel wrote a letter to Tarleton State University’s president concerning open records requests submitted to the System. The counsel’s letter responded to an inquiry by a Tarleton State faculty member about whether the member would be allowed to require students to file public information requests.

“The answer to the inquiry is no,” wrote general counsel Andrew Strong in the Oct. 27 letter.

Located in Stephenville, Tarleton is one of the universities within the A&M System, and Tarleton professors fall under the same regulations as any employee of the A&M System.

The act guarantees access to public information for any individual and prohibits limiting available information based on a requestor’s occupation. Strong said the System continues to respond to public information requests in accordance with Texas law. He added that the System has not yet disciplined any instructors for violating the regulation and does not ignore requests based on who makes them.

Strong said the regulation limits the amount of requests the System has to handle. He said formal requests, which are time-consuming to process, place a burden on the administration.

“You can’t teach journalism without teaching public information law and media law,” Strong said. “There are 10 different ways you can simulate the process where it can be educational without burdening the System.”

The UT System has no similar restrictions on faculty assigning open records requests to students, said UT System spokesman Anthony de Bruyn.

Wanda Cash, a UT journalism clinical professor, said her students routinely make public information requests as part of her reporting class.

“If we can no longer teach students how to access public information, we might as well shut down journalism,” Cash said. “Almost every assignment I make in my [intermediate reporting] class has an open records or open meetings component. Every journalism course here at UT has an open records or some sort of open government component.”

David Donaldson, a UT journalism lecturer, said he teaches students in his media law and ethics class to try to gain access to public information informally before making written public information requests.

“The most practical thing I teach is that you shouldn’t start with a formal, written request, you should start by trying to sweet talk your way to the information, then go in with a written request,” Donaldson said.

UT journalism professor Robert Jensen said that without evidence that faculty actions actually burden the administration, the regulation unnecessarily restricts A&M System instructors.

“The simple question to be asked then is, ‘Would suspending the regulation place a burden on officials?’” Jensen said. “In the absence of that, it’s an unacceptable restriction on teaching.”