University of Texas eliminating prior review

Every school night for more than 35 years, The Daily Texan had to make a detour on its way to the printer. Before a single drop of ink met newsprint, an adviser was required to comb through every word in the newspaper, searching for any legal gaffes editors might have let slip by.

But for the first time this year, student journalists at the University of Texas at Austin will shed that buffer and join virtually all of their college media counterparts, ending one of the most high-profile policies of prior review in the country.

The policy was part of a 1971 trust agreement, which the Texas Board of Regents scrapped in February in favor of a new policy that relinquishes control over University of Texas student-produced newspaper, magazines, radio station and other programs to the Texas Student Media Board.

The regents no long assume liability for content, although they will maintain control of student publication assets. Now that responsibility officially lies with the media board, and it has set out to revise the student media policy handbook.

After the new trust agreement was adopted, one of the media board’s first tasks was to scrap the prior review policy, which it unanimously agreed to do during its March 2, 2007, meeting.

But The Daily Texan student editors are not yet editorially autonomous; an adviser still reviews the paper each night before it goes to print and will continue to do so at least until the newspaper’s summer edition.

The transition of oversight from the regents to the media board has been arduous, and three months after the regents’ decision to forfeit control, media board members still are working out precisely how they will manage the university’s myriad publications.

Many of the intricacies of the new arrangement remain unresolved. Even the exact date for the prior review policy to officially end is still not certain.

While most anticipate that prior review will be scrapped for the first issue of The Daily Texan’s summer edition in June 2007, that deadline is contingent on whether the board purchases libel insurance by then.

Since the new trust was adopted in February, the media board has had the discretion to end the prior review policy whenever it wanted, but the board opted to wait until the newspaper was insured.

If the media board still does not have libel insurance by this summer, some on the board very well could vote to hold on to prior review temporarily, said Kathy Lawrence, who as director of student media is charged with carrying out the board’s decisions.

After a long battle to free the newspaper from administrative oversight, students are anxious to be finished, yet patient for a resolution – partly because it seems inevitable.

“The university is a bureaucratic mess, and, you know, it takes a while,” said media board President A.J. Bauer, who is also a former Daily Texan editor and a Student Press Law Center board member.

While no adviser since 1971 has changed any aspect of the newspaper’s content without an editor’s approval, without the prior review policy, future editors will never have to worry that an adviser might interfere, Editor in Chief JJ Hermes said.

“It’s just trying to make sure things are as healthy as possible for the future students at The Texan,” Hermes said.

The current adviser, Richard Finnell, said that of his 12 years in the position, he could recall reviewing only one news article that could have been libelous.

Finnell said the newspaper has been able to avoid more instances of libel in part because of programs like his staff-wide lecture on media law each semester, aimed at training the staff to spot libel and other legal mistakes themselves.

After the prior review practice ends, he says he will continue to help the newspaper staff maintain sound journalistic practice, but early in the news cycle, rather than at the end.

Finnell’s job is a rare one among public college newspapers, where prior review largely is an outdated policy.

Lawrence, a former president of College Media Advisers, the national organization of professional media advisers, said she is unaware of any other major public college that requires a newspaper be reviewed before publication.

Because of that, The Daily Texan has been cited by proponents of prior review across the country, who say that the policy at a major, award-winning daily student newspaper justifies similar policies elsewhere, Lawrence said.

But Daily Texan editors are reserving their celebration of the end of the policy.

Hermes said he was apprehensive that after so much work, there still might be some unforeseen complication that could keep the policy in place.

“It’s got momentum in the right direction,” he said. “But [the regents] have the ability to change momentum whenever they want.”

Lawrence was confident that the dismantling of the prior review policy would be carried out successfully, and she foresees nothing that would “muck it up.” Her concerns, she says, are the less glamorous aspects of the transition – such as accounting and personnel issues – which still must be worked out between the regents and the media board.

The end of prior review at Texas is the culmination of a work stretching over decades, during which editors worked to gradually dismantle the policy.

Until the effort of one editor about 10 years ago, the prior review policy was more expansive, requiring the adviser to police for certain political content the newspaper was prohibited from including.

The opportunity to finally eliminate prior review appeared about two years ago, when the Board of Regents developed an interest in analyzing the more than 30-year-old policy.

During that time, the media board had the opportunity to renegotiate the trust agreement and develop a new agreement that was satisfactory to both sides.

And, Lawrence said, it helped that the regents were open to acknowledging that University of Texas media was responsible for its content.

“There were people on the board of regents at this time who understood the First Amendment,” Lawrence said wryly.

The duration of this effort highlights the complications a student newspaper may face when trying to renegotiate its relationship with the school.

The ordeal has been long and complicated, and it will extend beyond the current editors’ time at the university, Hermes said.

For example, the new agreement between the newspaper and the regents includes a provision that could allow the newspaper to become an independent nonprofit entity – separate from the Board of Regents’ oversight.

The provision requires that the media board establish an endowment of at least $5 million, but it will likely be several years before the newspaper will be able to establish such a fund, Hermes said.

The experience has been exhausting, consuming countless hours, Hermes said.

“There’s so much else going on down here in the newsroom,” he said. “I’m glad I’m finally at a point where I don’t have to deal with this anymore.”