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Malone: “I said, ‘Do I need a lawyer?’ She said, ‘I don’t think so.’ She was wrong.” Photo by Jeff Prince.

Hiring former Fort Worth Weekly staff writer Dan Malone in 2006 was a smart move by Tarleton State University officials. They wanted to better prepare the school’s journalism students for careers. The question is: Will administrators learn something from Malone as well?

Malone, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who worked at the Weekly from 2002 to 2006, clashed with school leaders recently over the protection of news sources. Kellie Styron, dean of the College of Liberal & Fine Arts, issued a written reprimand to Malone in May, saying he violated a civil rights section of the university rules.

“This written reprimand is effective today and will be placed in your personnel file,” Styron wrote on May 16.

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What prompted the reprimand? One of Malone’s journalism students, Quanecia Fraser, had written articles that the school newspaper –– the Texan News –– had published in the spring, describing how multiple students were accusing assistant professor of history Michael Landis of inappropriate behavior. A student shared a text she had received from Landis that said, “Wanna get together for dinner, drinks & movies? My wife will be away…so it’ll just be me & the dogs. #lonely.”

The student responded, “I don’t think that would be appropriate.”

After the text exchange, the student felt uncomfortable around Landis and quit attending his class, which she failed, she said.

She filed a complaint with the university’s Employee Services Department and the Title IX Office, referring to the federal law that says, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Fraser first reported on the incident in February. In a follow-up story in April, she reported that eight women had accused Landis of inappropriate behavior in recent years, including offering them alcohol although they were under the legal drinking age. Most of the accusers requested anonymity.

In general, the teacher was prone to making comments to female students that “creeped them out,” Malone said.

One of the women who allowed her name to be published, Braiden Foster, said she was a freshman in Landis’ class when he handled a necklace that was hanging between her breasts while she was taking a test.

“He grabs it,” she told the Texan News. “He just picks up my necklace, holds it in his hand, looks me straight in the eye and was like, ‘I really like your necklace. It’s really pretty.’ It was just so uncomfortable.”

Foster said the professor asked her to meet for drinks when she handed in her test. She was 18 at the time. Landis is in his late 30s and married.

Some of the students who filed complaints with the university received memorandums that described Landis’ behavior as “troubling” and “highly inappropriate.” The author of those memos, Dwayne Snider, vice president of Academic Affairs, recommended that Landis be fired. But the memo stopped short of characterizing Landis’ behavior as sexual harassment or “creating a hostile education environment.”

Landis did not teach classes in 2018, but continued to draw paychecks at least through April, according to the Texan News. This week, a school official speaking on background said a decision on Landis’ employment has not been finalized.

Attempts to contact Landis and his attorney for this article were unsuccessful. His attorney, Gianna Ortiz, issued a statement to the school paper saying the “facts will show that termination is not warranted.”

Malone was reprimanded for failing to report the women’s claims of sexual harassment to school officials, who also sought the women’s identities, he said. Malone serves as faculty advisor to the Texan News and works with reporters such as Fraser while they prepare their stories for publication.

“You have the duty to report and to ensure we are providing a safe and discrimination-free environment for our students and employees,” the reprimand said. “The university cannot investigate what it does not know.”

Malone was at Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant in Fort Worth one recent evening to discuss the controversy with members of the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization designed to defend the First Amendment and freedoms of the press. I attended to hear his side of the story and to drink $8.50 frozen margaritas that instantly melted because the air conditioning was broken in the conference room. 

“Me Too is happening on college campuses just like it’s happening everywhere else,” Malone told the room of two-dozen journalists.

After Fraser’s second article was published, an official with Employee Services (human resources) contacted Malone.

“I got to work in the middle of May one morning,” Malone said. “My department head was outside my office and said we [must] meet with the human resources person. I said, ‘Do I need a lawyer?’ She said, ‘I don’t think so.’ She was wrong.”

Malone was informed he had violated Title IX, even though revealing the names of sources who request anonymity is ethically forbidden for journalists.

“I told the dean it was not in me to do that,” Malone said. “It wasn’t in my DNA.”

He described the reprimand as not particularly onerous –– “a letter in my file” –– but noted that it says he can receive additional discipline, including termination, if he repeats the offense in the future. Malone didn’t appreciate the reprimand but decided to take his lick and move forward. 

He became more combative after university officials discussed a similar reprimand for Fraser, who was a part-time employee at the school in addition to being a student.

“That’s what really blew me up,” Malone said.

Malone hired a lawyer, who appealed his reprimand. The appeal failed. So far, Malone said, Fraser has not received a reprimand. 

“It’s all kind of in limbo right now,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Reprimanding Fraser for doing a bang-up job of researching and breaking an important news story on campus is counter-intuitive, Malone said. Fraser is an exceptional student, he said. Her family is from Guyana, and she was the first born in the United States. Fraser spent this summer working as an intern at CBS News in New York City. She and other interns worked on a story that aired on CBSN, the network’s streaming video channel. Fraser received face time as an interviewer.

Malone described Fraser as “extremely talented” and poised for a successful career.

“I’ll be surprised one day if you don’t turn on your television or whatever replaces the television and see [Fraser] reading the evening news,” Malone said.

Tarleton is nestled amid rolling ranchland near Stephenville and emphasizes agricultural studies. Still, it’s more than a cow college, with celebrated alumni, including musician Ryan Bingham, actor George Kennedy, and former Fort Worth mayor and Texas senator Mike Moncrief.

This latest dust-up with school officials isn’t Malone’s first rodeo. Eight years ago, I described how Malone rankled school leaders after urging students to submit public information requests for stories that exposed on-campus problems such as unreported crimes (“Aggie Secrets,” Dec. 8, 2010). 

The Pulitzer Prize that Malone earned in 1992 is a part of his background that Tarleton officials bragged about when hiring him. Malone and Dallas Morning News co-writer Lorraine Adams earned the award for stories that involved filing numerous open records requests.

Last month, the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement of support for Malone and Fraser. “Student journalists frequently break stories on topics such as sexual harassment and assault on and around college campuses,” wrote SPJ official and former Weekly editor Gayle Reaves. “Frequently, the alleged victims request that their names not be released. This creates a conflict between college policies created to carry out Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act and Texas’ journalist shield law — and possibly between college policies and the press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

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