The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

    SE speaker discusses right to know

    By Amelia Smith

    Information cannot be kept from the public. This is against the law and simple to learn about, attorney Ryan Pittman of Jackson Walker in Dallas told about 20 SE students April 12.

    “The main topic today is the Texas string of freedom of information laws,” he said.

    The freedom of information laws are something reporters use every day as a tool to do their job, Pittman said.

    “If you are interested in journalism or reporting of any sort, learn more about this topic,” he said.

    State law grants the right for any public citizen to have access to all government documents within reason, Pittman said.

    “The government relies on the resist disclosing information exceptions, and there are more than 50,” he said.

    Pittman mentioned a few more common exceptions to requests made by citizens. The first deals with confidential information, things that would be an invasion of privacy.

    “For example, health records cannot be distributed or employees of the state’s information, such as a professor,” he said.

    Another exception, Pittman said, is legal records that could jeopardize a prosecution or a crime, in other words, sensitive information.

    “The process which a citizen can undergo to request a record is very simple and pretty quick,” he said.

    The standard procedure includes writing a request to the public information officer and making this letter as specific as possible. This letter does not need to include the actual name of the document requested, Pittman said. Emailing is also a way to request information. The only way that is not appropriate is a verbal request.

    “There is a website called foift.org, which stands for Freedom of Information Foundation, and anyone can access this,” he said. The site has examples of requests and formatting, but the only drawback is the possible copying fee which is around 10 cents per page, Pittman said.

    When dealing with the government and the exceptions, some people believe the government’s word regarding whether the records fall within the exception is always right, Pittman said.

    “Texas actually allows the records to be reviewed by the Texas attorney general, but, in return, the government can sue the attorney general if they see fit,” he said.

    The government officials who withhold information unjustly can be prosecuted with a misdemeanor under state law, Pittman said.

    According to the Texas Open Meetings Act, the state is required to have meetings open to the public, he said. This is only when the meeting refers to information that can be announced to the public.

    Examples of public material are policies, procedures, taxes, etc. Pittman also said the government is required to give notice that the meeting is going to happen.

    “If this doesn’t occur, and the officials withhold the information about the meeting time and place, this could also be punishable by prosecution and even jail time,” he said.

    The only matters not to be discussed are purchase exchanges or the discussion of personnel matters such as employee behavior, he said.

    The final decisions of any meeting must be done in public.

    The last topic Pittman discussed was defamation defense.

    “This is what we focus on a lot of the time at Jackson Walker, mainly with media clients,” he said.

    If someone has proof someone is speaking negatively about them, Pittman said that individual may have a case. The way to further the case is to prove that this slander or negativity is actually happening, he said.

    “Always be mindful of the legal requirements of the law before you begin a lawsuit, which is the bottom line for journalists,” he said. “Walk a fine line when it comes to statements about others. Don’t publish something that is false about someone else.”

    Jonathan Brody, a SE Campus student, said he enjoyed the section about public and private information. He said he was confused at first, but “found it interesting that the government can give and withhold information at different times.”

    Student Shameaka Jones said she could use the information in her journalism career.

    “Learning how simple it is to request information and how to go about getting it was something I took away from the presentation,” she said.

    Christian Cano said he was glad to learn about accessing any public information.

    “That’s something no one really knows about,” he said. “I also liked learning about defamation.”

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