TEXAS — The University of Texas at Austin’s Student Publications Board approved a new agreement Friday that transfers student media liability and a mandate to review content prior to publication, which were previously held by the Texas Board of Regents, to the publications board.
The agreement would give the student publications board liability for itself, while the board of regents would continue to control all student publication assets, said Texas Student Publications Director Kathy Lawrence.
While prior review of student publications is neither obligatory nor abolished under the new agreement, the chances of prior review naturally happening would diminish because liability responsibilities would shift to the student publications board, Lawrence said.
“It appears that it will eliminate the final vestiges of prior review that we had in place here,” Lawrence said.
The board of regents will consider the new agreement during its meeting February 8-9. If approved, the student publications board would have 90 days to create its own procedures, which includes a new prior review policy.
“We still don’t know to what extent the [student publications] board is willing to seek control over prior review,” said J.J. Hermes, editor in chief of The Daily Texan.
Every article published in The Daily Texan has been subject to prior review since 1971, as part of the original trust agreement between the university and the newspaper. The original agreement gave the board of regents complete liability for the newspaper and required review of each issue by an adviser before publication.
Lawrence said the draft approved by the publications board would “institute training and safeguards that the student media are operating within the law and appropriately as an educational outlet,” eliminating the need for an adviser to double-check every story that goes in the paper.
“Students don’t learn when somebody is just fixing things,” Lawrence said.
Courts nationwide have ruled that prior review of student publications by state school officials is a violation of the First Amendment, courts have also said that public universities cannot be held legally responsible for a student publication’s content, so long as they do not review or control its content.
A previous draft agreement created in November 2006 by the Texas Board of Regents upheld prior review by the university, according to The Daily Texan. The Texas Student Publications board rejected that proposal.
Hermes said he still is not convinced that mandatory prior review will be abolished.
“What we approved on Friday has less to do with prior review and more to shielding the board of regents from liability,” he said. “So, the regents own everything and are liable for nothing.”
Lawrence said she does not envision any situation where student editors could not request legal advice to review for controversial topics.
While no story has ever been censored by an adviser during the 35 years of the current trust agreement, removing prior review of The Daily Texan would encourage students to learn more throughout the newsgathering process, Lawrence said.
“Advisers are really there to provide counseling, guidance, training and a lot of support to students though out the newsgathering and preparation process — not just to be the safety net at the end of the shift,” Lawrence said.
By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer