University Wise To Rethink Open-Records Policy

Gene PolicinskiCommentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

Let’s begin 2011 on a hopeful note: Texas A&M University officials say they will revisit a recent decision that would have banned journalism instructors from directing students in filing open-records requests about — of all things — Texas A&M policies and practices.

At Tarleton State University, one of 19 Texas schools and agencies in the A&M state system, journalism instructors have for years taught their students how to file such requests. Not surprisingly, Tarleton State students have done that very thing.

News reports say the regulation was adopted some years ago to prevent university employees from filing “frivolous” requests that cost the school money to research. The latest reasoning went that journalism instructors violated the rule by requiring students in their classes to file open-records requests.

Preventing unnecessary spending is one thing. But it’s hard to ignore that students have used past requests to pry loose university information that has been embarrassing, or more. A 2004 disclosure led to Tarleton’s being fined $27,500 for failing to report campus crimes accurately.

Coincidentally, a fall 2010 request for current Tarleton State campus-crime stats apparently started this latest flap. The university denied release of the information, citing the rule, and the warning was issued — including the threat of dismissal for violation of the policy.

Texas A&M’s guiding plan, “Vision 2020,” has language in the third of 12 “imperatives” saying the university “must better prepare learners for lives of discovery, innovation, leadership, and citizenship by better inculcation of writing, thinking, and self-expression skills.”

That seems like an “imperative” right in line with the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, press and petition, which lie at the heart of freedom of information and open-records laws.

Citizens have a right to know what their government agencies, including universities, are doing so that they may effectively speak, write and occasionally seek redress regarding those policies if they wish. And a free press functioning as a watchdog free from a government leash was intended to bring such information to citizens who could not, on a regular basis, find it for themselves.

That’s how a transparent government system is supposed to work. Information is kept on file, in part, for use by citizens who ultimately foot the bill, whether through fees or tax dollars.
Why not adopt the stated premise behind the “Vision 2020” plan and view the faculty guidance and students’ open-records filings as educating young citizens to fully exercise their First Amendment rights? Into the bargain, the information they discover helps others more fully participate in the American experiment in self-government.

Sounds like a good educational “imperative” for Texas A&M – and elsewhere, too.

Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. E-mail: [email protected].