Newspaper does not have to comply with open-records law, official rules

TEXAS — The student newspaper at the University of Texas at Tyler\nwas handed a victory by the state attorney general’s office, which\nruled June 19 that the state’s open-records law did not require\nthe newspaper to release reporters’ notes and recordings from\nan investigation into alleged misconduct by student government\nofficials.

Shortly after The Patriot ran a story March 19 detailing alleged\ncampus election law violations, student government president Aimee\nGriffy filed a state Public Information Act request asking newspaper\neditor Melissa Tresner to turn over materials she compiled during\nher investigation.

Griffy argued that the paper’s staff members were state actors\ncovered by the state’s open-records law because the paper is funded\nin part through student activity fees.

But Tresner contested the request, claiming that compelling\nher to hand over the material violated her First Amendment newsgathering\nprivilege. The University of Texas’ lawyers asked the state attorney\ngeneral’s office to issue an opinion on the matter.

The open-records division of the Texas Attorney General’s office\nruled that the newspaper staff is not considered a "governmental\nbody" for the purposes of the state’s Public Information\nAct because students are given complete discretion to determine\nthe paper’s editorial content. As a result, the requested notes\nand recordings are not public information, according to the ruling.

"Rather it appears that the notes and recordings were\nproduced by private students for the student-run newspaper,"\nthe ruling states. "Even if we assumed that the notes and\nrecordings were collected, assembled or maintained for the university\nas publisher of the newspaper, it does not appear that the university\neither owns or has a right of access to this information."

The ruling further states that university-funded scholarships\ngiven to staff members might be protected under the federal Family\nEducational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. Griffy had asked that\neditors’ payment information-most of which is given in the form\nof scholarships-be disclosed as well.

It is believed that this is the first official ruling in the\ncountry on whether a state open-records law requires student media\nat a public school to disclose reporters’ notes and other editorial\nwork products.

Tresner said applying the state open-records law to student\nreporters’ notes would have had a chilling effect on the newspaper’s\nincentive to investigate important stories.

She said the only information the paper will provide in response\nto Griffy’s request are the wages of salaried employees, adding\nthat such information only applies to the paper’s circulation\nmanager, cartoonists and copy editors.

Tresner said she is pleased with the decision, adding that\nshe believed the effort to compel the journalists to turn over\ntheir interview materials was the result of a misperception that\nthe paper’s reporting had been maliciously motivated.

"This is a newspaper here, and we are not out to get anyone,"\nshe said. "My intent was just to uncover the truth."