TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: You can’t play by the rules — or know when to break them — without a copy of the rulebook

To the list of those routine-but-essential tasks that belong on every to-do list — see the dentist, change your smoke-alarm batteries, rotate your tires — add this one: Get a copy of your school or college’s rulebook — and read it.

Each fall, returning students are ambushed by policy changes that, with remarkable frequency, tend to get enacted during the summer term when scrutiny by the public is at its lowest.

For instance, the University of North Carolina is among the schools that, in compliance with a recent federal mandate, rewrote its disciplinary standards to make it easier to prove a claim of sexual assault.

Of far lesser consequence, dorm residents at Northwestern University recently learned that the fee for lost keys will nearly triple, to $200, for a third offense.

No matter the stakes, it’s important for campus journalists to keep current on rule changes enacted by campus trustees or governing boards — especially those that impact the student media. If the code of student conduct infringes on free expression, journalists must be their own advocates. A thorough once-a-year checkup of campus policies will include, at a minimum:

  • The publications or student media policy. This is a must-have. Every media outlet should be certain of the policies to which it may be held — at times, student journalists have been pleasantly surprised to learn that campus publication policies give them more freedom than they’ve been told.
  • Media credentialing policies for sporting events. Athletic conferences and their members have become increasingly aggressive about restricting the way all media, including student media, can cover sports — it’s common, for instance, for credentialing policies to restrict the resale of game photographs or posting video on the Web.
  • Policies limiting speech of any kind, particularly online-speech policies that extend to what students say in their off-campus lives on social networking sites. Attempts to censor or punish students for online remarks reflecting discredit on the school are growing, but — at public institutions that must abide by the First Amendment — may be legally unenforceable. (After a recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that legitimized punishing students for speech that falls short of “established professional conduct standards” in a pre-professional program, all collegians should be on alert for copycat policies attempting to put this dangerously nebulous language into college disciplinary codes.)
  • The “directory information” policy. Every K-12 school and college that is governed by the federal FERPA privacy law can designate certain basic information (name, address, grade level, academic honors and awards) as “directory information,” meaning it may routinely be disclosed without the advance consent of the student or parents. Find out what the school has exempted from FERPA, so you can be prepared if the institution cries “FERPA” in response to a public-records request.
  • Copies of the privacy waivers that student-athletes must sign. Almost every college athletic department requires a privacy waiver so the school can freely talk about whether an athlete has been injured, or dismissed from the team. Find out exactly what the waiver covers — so you can argue back if the coaching staff hides behind “student privacy” when the tough questions start. Bonus: Also get a copy of any policy restricting athletes’ use of social media — and see what athletes have to say about it.

It’s a good start — but only a start — to check the college website. Websites aren’t always updated with the latest drafts of rulebooks and policy manuals, and the fact that the college may be giving inadequate (or even misleading) notice about its policies is itself worthy of journalistic attention.