Fate of Texas A&M system's controversial records policy uncertain

TEXAS — The top lawyer for the Texas A&M University System may be ready to recommend changing a controversial public records policy that is under fire from media organizations, the president of a state open government group said Thursday.

Representatives of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas met Wednesday with Andrew Strong, general counsel for the 17-school system. Laura Prather, a media attorney and the foundation’s president, said Strong indicated he would recommend the A&M system amend or eliminate the policy.

“There was no concrete resolution during the meeting because it’s not his call to make,” she said.

The regulation in question bars employees at any of the system’s 17 universities from filing “public information requests to system members while acting in their official capacity.” It has come under scrutiny from organizations representing journalists, including the Student Press Law Center, because of its potential effect on student journalism and academic freedom.

In an October letter, Strong wrote that the regulation prohibits journalism professors from telling their students to file records requests during class.

Earlier Thursday, system spokesman Rod Davis said there were no plans to change the regulation, which he said has been on the books for about 17 years. He said he did not know the original rationale for adopting the rule, but said this is the first time a dispute has arisen over it.

“They had a good talk (Wednesday) and Andrew came out of it saying that he had made a commitment to consider his letter more… [and] see if they could come up with any suggestions for solving the situation,” Davis said.

Prather said FIFT was not aware of the regulation prior to Strong’s letter.

In a letter sent to system chancellor Mike McKinney on Wednesday, SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte wrote that Strong’s interpretation seemed designed to impede legitimate newsgathering by students. The system recently faced a fine after student journalists at Tarleton State University exposed violations of federal campus crime reporting laws — reporting done under the supervision of communication studies professor Dan Malone.

“The Act is an affirmative grant of rights to all citizens of Texas,” LoMonte wrote, “and — unless provided by the legislature — agencies may not impose their own eligibility criteria, regardless of their motivation for doing so.”

Davis said the system supports the public records act and the use of it as a teaching tool in class.

“Frankly, I don’t understand the confusion, I don’t understand why so many journalists seem to be unable to read the regulation and figure it out,” Davis said. “It’s pretty straightforward to me, but obviously there’s some kind of a disagreement about this — which I think can be resolved.”

The Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also sent a letter criticizing the regulation as a violation of professors’ academic freedom and the Texas Public Information Act.