Texas A&M policy conflicts with public information law

The new university policy bars professors from instructing students to request public information from Texas A&M.

A new Texas A&M University System policy regarding public information requests to the university has sparked debate over freedom of information rights and whether the university is overstepping its bounds.

The Texas A&M system faced a fine of $27,500 after a student studying journalism at Tarleton State University, a part of the Texas A&M University System, gave insight into violations by the university system regarding crime reporting laws. The students gathered open-record information using the Public Information Act, which showed the system had not been up to code on certain regulations.

According to university policy, Texas A&M professors are not allowed to instruct students to file for public information, though the students may do so of their own free will.

The actual policy states, “System employees are not authorized to submit public information requests to system members while acting in their official capacity. Any public information request made by an employee to a system member must be submitted in that employee’s individual capacity as a private citizen.”

Faculty members who do not comply with the policy can be subject to consequences and in some cases, could face being fired.

The justification for the policy is, “This regulation establishes baseline procedures to help The Texas A&M University System members comply with the Texas Public Information Act.”

MU Journalism Professor Charles Davis said he teaches a control for information course in the journalism graduate program at MU which requires students to do a project where their role is to make requests for public information.

“When I heard about that, my jaw literally dropped and it doesn’t drop that often,” Davis said. “If it were in effect here, I’d have probably been fired 100 times by now.”

Davis said the policy basically says, in their roles as faculty members, professors can’t ask others to make Freedom of Information requests. He said the ruling was put into place after Professor of Journalism Dan Malone came to teach at Tarleton State University, where the controversy over the interpretation of the policy originally came from.

“They’re trying to sort of limit curricular speech,” MU Professor of Law Christina Wells said. “And to some extent, they’re going to be able to do that. In the classroom itself, you may have certain things the university has control over. Your rights aren’t absolute, even when we’re thinking about academic freedom.”

Davis said he has no idea how the Texas A&M system having this policy helps faculty members comply with the Texas Public Information Act.”

“I really have no idea, as the rule actually serves to stymie requests,” Davis said in an e-mail.

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