Reversal at 'Daily Texan'

May 3, 2005

The Daily Texan will remain unique for at least a little while longer.

The University of Texas at Austin student newspaper is believed to be the only such publication where the student body elects the editor, right alongside student government leaders, in a vote each spring.

But citing concerns about the unseemliness of the campaigning process for the job and the newsroom conflict that can arise between the elected editor and the managing editor, who is appointed by the Student Publications Board, the board voted in March to move toward ending the popular election and letting the board choose the editor instead.

The decision drew an outcry from several generations of editors who had been elected to the post, who argued that having the student body elect the editor best ensured (1) that the newspaper would represent the interests and opinions of all students, and (2) that it would remain independent despite the occasionally aggressive efforts by university regents and other officials to control what the paper should publish during its more than 100-year history. 

In recent weeks, those who favor keeping the elected editorship turned up the pressure by turning to the newspaper's history. At a meeting of the publications board on April 22, several former editors traveled to Austin to argue not only that abandoning the elected editorship was a bad idea, but that doing so may violate the law.

After a series of disputes with regents in the 1960s, they noted, the assets of the independent company that had overseen the Daily Texan during its first decades of operation were put into a trust held by the university in 1971, as part of an agreement to settle the disputes. To try to ensure the newspaper's continued independence, the student journalists (and their lawyers) had insisted at that time as part of the agreement that the student body would continue to elect the editor. 

Because that trust agreement is still in force, the former editors argued at the Student Publications Board last month, any attempt to appoint rather than elect the editor would violate, and potentially undermine, the trust agreement. 

"The whole idea of the agreement was that in exchange for the regents getting the assets, the students got the right to keep the elected editor," says Mike Godwin, an elected editor from the late 1980s who is legal director for Public Knowledge, a First Amendment policy group. "As we see it, If you welch on that part of the deal, it calls the whole agreement into question. At the end of the day, that argument had a lot of traction."

At a specially called meeting last Friday, the student publications board reversed its March decision and agreed, for the time being at least, to continue to let the student body elect the Texan's editor. Kathy Lawrence, director of student publications at Texas, said that the board's members felt that "in light of legal questions, it would not be prudent to act now." 

Lawrence said that the board would continue to study the issue, including by looking into whether the trust agreement is still enforceable. Among other things, she said the board might try to hold a student referendum on the question of whether the editor should continue to be popularly elected.

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