TEXAS — The student newspaper at the University ofTexas at Tyler was handed a victory by the state attorney general’soffice, which ruled June 19 that the state’s open-records lawdoes not require the paper to release reporters’ notes and recordingsfrom an investigation into alleged misconduct by student governmentofficials.
Shortly after The Patriot ran a story March 19 detailingalleged campus election law violations, student government presidentAimee Griffy filed a state Public Information Act request askingnewspaper editor Melissa Tresner to turn over materials she compiledduring her investigation.
Griffy argued that the paper’s staff members were state actorscovered by the state’s open-records law because the paper is fundedin part through the fees that students pay to campus organizations.
But Tresner contested the request, claiming that compellingher to hand over the material violated her First Amendment newsgatheringprivilege. The University of Texas’ lawyers asked the state attorneygeneral’s office to issue an opinion on the matter.
The open-records division of the Texas Attorney General’s officeruled that the newspaper staff is not considered a "governmentalbody" for the purposes of the state’s Public InformationAct because students are given complete discretion to determinethe paper’s editorial content. As a result, the requested notesand recordings are not public information, according to the ruling.
"Rather it appears that the notes and recordings wereproduced by private students for the student-run newspaper,"the ruling states. "Even if we assumed that the notes andrecordings were collected, assembled or maintained for the universityas publisher of the newspaper, it does not appear that the universityeither owns or has a right of access to this information."
The ruling further states that university-funded scholarshipsgiven to staff members might be protected under the federal FamilyEducational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. Griffy had asked thateditors’ payment information — most of which is given in theform of scholarships – -be disclosed as well.
It is believed that this is the first official ruling in thecountry to find that a state open-records law does not requirestudent media at a public school to disclose reporters’ notesand other editorial work products.
Tresner said applying the state open-records law to studentreporters’ notes would have had a chilling effect on the newspaper’sincentive to investigate important stories.
She said the only information the paper will provide in responseto Griffy’s request are the wages of salaried employees. Thisinformation — which only applies to the paper’s circulation manager,cartoonists and copy editors — will have to be made availableto the university’s public information office by Friday.
Tresner said she is pleased with the decision, adding thatshe believes the effort to compel the journalists to turn overtheir interview materials was the result of a misperception thatthe paper’s reporting had been maliciously motivated.
"We are not out to get anyone," she said. "Myintent was just to uncover the truth."
The opinion of the Texas attorney general in this matter isavailable online at: http://www.oag.state.tx.us/opinopen/opinions/orl49cornyn/orl2001/or012594.htm