LAWSUIT: FIRE sues Texas university for withholding public records about how it censored a student publication – then took over its editorial independence

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LAWSUIT: FIRE sues Texas university for withholding public records about how it censored a student publication – then took over its editorial independence

Tarleton State

(Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia Commons)

  • FIRE seeks records about Tarleton State University’s investigation of a professor accused of “highly inappropriate behavior,” administrative takeover of student newspaper
  • Lawsuit coincides with the launch of FIRE’s new Student Press Freedom Initiative to safeguard student journalism

STEPHENVILLE, Texas, Feb. 10, 2022 — Did Tarleton State University censor and seize editorial control over its student newspaper in an attempt to cover up a former professor’s inappropriate behavior against female students? To uncover the truth, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sued Tarleton today to obtain records that the university improperly withheld under Texas’s Public Information Act.

“Tarleton covered up its records on a professor’s ‘inappropriate behavior’ by demanding that a student newspaper take down articles, then covered up the cover-up by withholding records from the public,” said FIRE attorney Gabe Walters. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and today there’s something shady in Stephenville.”

Tarleton quietly paid professor Michael Landis more than $61,000 in September 2018 to leave the university after an investigation found that he had acted inappropriately toward female students. Three years later, Landis threatened to sue an independent student newspaper, the Texan News Service, for defamation over stories it published about his misconduct and departure.

Landis’ threat to sue was toothless. Not only was any defamation suit too late under the statute of limitations, but TNS’ reporting was accurate and truthful.

But that did not stop Tarleton administrators from pressuring students to take down the articles. After FIRE wrote to the university in August 2021 to defend the student publication, Tarleton falsely claimed that TNS was never independent from the administration — contrary to TNS’s former policy handbook and history. 

Provost Karen Murray also wrote in a Sept. 30 letter to faculty that it is “imperative that the TNS operate only as an instructional laboratory for students and interns” and not as an editorially independent paper. 

FIRE learned from a faculty member that classifying TNS as an “instructional laboratory” means TNS’ adviser will have final editorial discretion over what the paper does and doesn’t publish. While a faculty-edited publication isn’t necessarily a bad thing, taking over a formerly student-run publication certainly is. In redefining TNS’ identity, the administration essentially stripped the publication of its editorial independence — all so the university could try to cover up an embarrassing situation.

Alarmed by Tarleton’s blatant censorship, FIRE lodged several public records requests with the university seeking information on efforts to censor TNS and on Landis’ threat of a lawsuit. Tarleton provided some records in response, but withheld others, claiming that the withheld information is confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. 

Today’s lawsuit points out that some of the records Tarleton withheld under this exemption were actually published by TNS itself and are not “student records” under FERPA. The lawsuit seeks to have the court compel Tarleton to produce the documents and to redact any information that identifies students.

“Student journalists need an ally when administrators threaten censorship, funding cuts, intimidation, or any other weapon in their arsenal to eliminate free expression,” said Lindsie Rank, FIRE’s student press counsel. “FIRE is that ally. We are here to help student journalists in the newsroom and the courtroom.”

Today, FIRE is launching its Student Press Freedom Initiative to protect freedom of the collegiate press through advocacy and litigation efforts, to research the state of student press freedom, and to provide resources for student journalists. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT: 

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Associate, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

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