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Journalists, journalism professors and students, and open government advocates across the nation are tuned in to a drama playing out at Tarleton State University after questions arose whether school policy prevents instructors from telling students to file open records requests. The requests are a frequently used tool among reporters trying to get access to public information.

A meeting this afternoon at Tarleton didn’t clear up much.  Journalism instructor Dan Malone and communications department head Charles Howard met with Provost Gary Peer to discuss the policy. Afterward, Howard said the policy is still being clarified. No changes to the school’s curriculum, textbooks, or methods of teaching are pending until further clarification comes from the A&M system.

“We’re going to get clarification of a clarification,” Howard said.

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The hubbub began when Tarleton President Dominic Dottavio asked the A&M system whether an instructor could tell students to file open records request to the school as part of class assignments. Malone’s students have filed open records request while covering controversial activities on campus, such as on-campus crime, expenditures, and phone records.

A&M attorney Andrew Strong wrote a letter to Dottavio on Oct.  27 saying “the answer to the inquiry is ‘no'” — that is, instructors are not allowed to direct students to submit such requests.

Disciplinary measures against instructors who do so can include termination.

The attorney’s interpretation set off fireworks in journalism circles nationwide. Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas president Laura Lee Prather fired off a letter this week to Strong advising him to suspend the policy. 

“The position you have taken has a direct adverse and unjustifiable effect, not only on Mr. Malone, but on similarly situated professors and their students throughout the system — and on our foundation directly,”  she wrote.

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