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Something stinks at Tarleton: Secret documents, censorship demands, and an apparent newspaper takeover

Entrance to Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas.

Tarleton State University stripped a student newspaper of editorial independence and now has failed to comply with public records requests by FIRE. (Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia Commons)

This is a story about a public university that paid a professor — after finding that he acted in a “highly inappropriate and unprofessional” manner with at least one female student — $61,000 to leave quietly, stripped a student newspaper of editorial independence when it wouldn’t stay quiet, and has now failed to comply with FIRE’s public records requests seeking documents related to its relationship with the student newspaper. Something is rotten at Tarleton. 

How did we get here?

A few months ago, FIRE wrote about attacks against student journalism at Tarleton State University in Texas. It started when student newspaper Texan News Service received a demand letter this summer from an attorney representing former Tarleton professor Michael Landis, who had been accused of acting inappropriately toward female students in 2018. TNS had covered these allegations, as well as Landis’ eventual unceremonious departure from Tarleton. But this July, Landis resurfaced to claim TNS’s 2018 articles had defamed him. He demanded the articles be removed.

Landis was two years too late. Defamation claims have to be filed within a year of publication in Texas, as in most states, and Landis’ letter came two years and ten months after the most recent allegedly defamatory article had been published. His letter — an attempt to intimidate newspaper’s student editors, or at least a gamble that they’d see it as cheaper to delete old articles than to risk having to mount a costly legal defense — should have been tossed straight into the garbage. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. As we wrote in August, Landis’ letter instead went to the university’s administration, which took an bad situation — a disgraced former professor making baseless legal threats — and turned it into a dire one by issuing its own threat to the student newspaper: Take down the Landis content or lose your funding.

Concerned for the future of TNS without funding, editors removed the articles.

FIRE later discovered, however, that Landis’ legal arguments were — somehow — even more baseless, and Tarleton State’s administration knew it.

Records reveal Tarleton’s $61,000 settlement with Landis

In demanding that TNS remove its articles, Tarleton said it was concerned it might be liable if Landis did decide to sue. When FIRE, joined by the Student Press Law Center, wrote to Tarleton in August, we knew this fear was preposterous (and potentially pretextual) for one reason: The claims were clearly time-barred.

The university paid a faculty member it found had acted inappropriately $61,000 to leave the university without complaint.

FIRE and the Student Press Law Center discovered that this fear was preposterous (and probably pretextual) for another reason: Tarleton had already agreed to pay $61,352.15 to Landis in September 2018 in exchange for him leaving the university and waiving “all claims, demands, and causes of action” against the university. In other words, Landis couldn’t hold the university liable for any actions taken before September 27, 2018 — even if those claims weren’t already time-barred. This includes any claims related to TNS’s articles, the latest of which was published September 4, 2018 — 23 days before Landis and Tarleton reached their agreement.

Pause a moment to let that sink in. The university paid a faculty member it found had acted inappropriately $61,000 to leave the university without complaint. Then it used unsubstantiated fear of legal risk as a reason to censor the student paper. And if it did not fear legal exposure, its decision to force the deletion of student articles about allegations of sexual harassment — by a university employee — was entirely voluntary.

(It’s worth noting that even if Landis’s defamation claims weren’t time-barred, and even if he hadn’t already waived claims against the university, the university would not properly be liable for claims against an independent student publication.)

Tarleton strips student newspaper of right to editorial independence, claiming it was never independent

In response to FIRE’s letter, Tarleton falsely claimed TNS was never editorially independent — in other words, that the university, not student journalists, decides what can and cannot be published. There are two things to realize about this claim: First, as we explained in our letter, it wouldn’t matter if TNS wasn’t fully independent, because even K-12 student publications that bear the imprimatur of their institution can only be censored for legitimate pedagogical reasons. Wanting to silence stories that might make the university look bad isn’t a legitimate reason. (Neither is wanting to give in to frivolous claims of defamation.)

Second, the university’s claim that TNS has never been editorially independent is contrary to documentary and testimonial evidence about the founding and structure of TNS.

The university quickly moved to squelch any hope of editorial freedom in the future.

Making clear the publication was intended to be editorially independent, TNS’s policy handbook stated, “[s]tudent journalists exercise the same first amendment rights and responsibilities as professional journalists, foremost among them the right to practice their craft without fear of retaliation or censorship.” (It is our understanding this policy was changed by Tarleton administration in the last several months, though FIRE has been unable to secure a copy of the updated handbook.)

And, although TNS has always been housed within the communication studies department, the publication structure was designed with editorial independence in mind. TNS founder and former adviser Dan Malone explained during a webinar hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists Fort Worth Chapter that he and former Tarleton professor Kathryn Jones started TNS because “we felt our students needed an outlet to print their stories where they couldn’t be subjected to . . . publication retaliation.” 

Malone opted to structure TNS within the communication studies department in response to administrative overregulation of Tarleton’s other student newspaper, the JTAC, which had, as Malone put it during the SPJ webinar, faced retaliation “against some of the better stories our students wrote about sexual assault on campus.” TNS was set up within the department, then, not to allow faculty or administrators to exercise control over its content, but instead to allow faculty to band together and shield students from administrative oversight.

Regardless of this historical policy, once TNS editors complained about Tarleton’s meddling in content in light of its response to the Landis demand letter, the university quickly moved to squelch any hope of editorial freedom in the future.

“It is imperative that the TNS operate only as an instructional laboratory for students and interns,” Tarleton Provost Karen Murray wrote to Eric Morrow, dean of the college of liberal and fine arts at Tarleton, in a September 30 letter that FIRE understands was copied to faculty in the communication studies department.

During a call with the chair of the communication studies department, FIRE learned that this “instructional laboratory” also means that TNS’s adviser will have final editorial discretion over what is and isn’t published in the newspaper. While a faculty-edited publication isn’t always a bad thing, it’s not a student publication, in which students should properly hold the right of editorial freedom.

During this call, we asked what this means for the editorial freedom of TNS. The chair told us he wasn’t sure.

It has been suggested that this restructuring of TNS is really formalizing the existing structure, and is intended to protect the university from legal liability. But when “formalization” flips on its head the original purpose of housing TNS within an academic department — to ensure independence for the students. And because Tarleton had already settled “all legal claims” with Landis, and was therefore at no actual risk of liability, the purpose of its takeover of TNS seems clear: Silence journalism in order to preserve Tarleton’s reputation.

Tarleton covers up documents about its takeover of TNS

Concerned for the future of independent student journalism at Tarleton, FIRE wanted to know more. So we filed a series of public records requests asking for documents related to Landis’s time at the university, including records related to the investigations against him; records related to the organizational structure and governance of TNS; and records about the university’s response to Landis’s demand letter. Per Texas law, public universities like Tarleton are required to provide documents to those who request them unless it can show that the records fall into a statutorily-defined exception.

The records we received were conspicuously incomplete. 

Those documents exist, and we specifically asked for them, but they were inexplicably withheld.

While we received a 140-page document labeled as Landis’ personnel file, this document included only his application materials, information about his class schedules, and some documents about insurance and retirement. Tarleton failed to turn over any documents related to its investigation of Landis, including the already-public March 28, 2018 memorandum finding insufficient evidence to substantiate a claim of sexual harassment against Landis but nonetheless finding that he had acted inappropriately toward students. Those documents exist, and we specifically asked for them, but they were inexplicably withheld.

Also missing from the records were any documents related to the organizational structure of TNS. For example, Tarleton did not include the memo sent to Dean Morrow and communication studies faculty, which FIRE knows exists only because a faculty member shared it with us. 

That letter references a review of “the status of” TNS. Logically, this review must have created documentation — memoranda, emails, notes, for example — and yet Tarleton failed to disclose any of these records to us.

Today, FIRE once again wrote to the Deputy General Counsel of the Texas A&M system — of which Tarleton is a part — calling the university out on this fishy business and demanding that the university produce complete records related to its takeover of TNS. We’re committed to getting to the bottom of Tarleton’s attack on student journalism, and we’ll keep you posted.

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