Open-records law does not apply to Texas student newspaper’s unpublished material, attorney general says

The student newspaper at the University of Texas at Tyler was handed a victory by the state attorney general’s office, which ruled June 19 that the state’s open-records law does not require the paper to release reporters’ notes and recordings from an investigation into alleged misconduct by student government officials.

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

Griffy argued that the paper’s staff members were state actors covered by the state’s open-records law because the paper is funded in part through the fees that students pay to campus organizations.

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

The open-records division of the Texas Attorney General’s office ruled that the newspaper staff is not considered a “governmental body” for the purposes of the state’s Public Information Act because students are given complete discretion to determine the paper’s editorial content. As a result, the requested notes and recordings are not public information, according to the ruling.

“Rather it appears that the notes and recordings were produced by private students for the student-run newspaper,” the ruling states. “Even if we assumed that the notes and recordings were collected, assembled or maintained for the university as publisher of the newspaper, it does not appear that the university either owns or has a right of access to this information.”

SPLC VIEW: This was an important ruling. We believe that this is the first official ruling in the country to find that a state open-records law does not require student media at a public school to disclose reporters’ notes and other editorial work products. Though we are aware of only a handful of situations where student media have been subjected to formal open records law requests, a contrary ruling in this case could have changed that. Note, however, that while editorial work products should be protected from disclosure, the same cannot necessarily be said for other student media records. In fact, the SPLC has always advised public school student media that some state open records law may require them to provide information about their business operations, including information concerning ad revenue and operating costs, staff salaries, conference expenses, etc. Student media — in the business of promoting openness and accountability from their news sources — should be willing to subject themselves to the same standard.

Ruling: Tex. A.G. Op. No. OR2001-2594 (6/19/2001)