Austin, Texas, August 21, 2009 — After more than a decade of efforts involving Texas’ leading journalists, attorneys and other public interest groups, Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis, D-Harris County, and State Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Nueces County and surrounding counties, joined forces to get the state’s first “Free Flow of Information Act” passed during this year’s legislative session. Their efforts garnered the two elected officials the James Madison Award, the highest accolade from The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas at their annual John Henry Faulk Awards Luncheon, held recently (August 21, 2009) in Austin.
H.B. 670, the “Free Flow of Information Act,” sometimes called a shield law, says journalists cannot be compelled by prosecutors to reveal confidential sources without a judicial ruling. This should prevent prosecutorial fishing expeditions that use journalists, their notes and film as an easy route to obtain information. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry on May 13 this year.
In his remarks at the luncheon, State Sen. Ellis noted that he has introduced similar legislation during the 2005 and 2007 legislative session.
“In 2005, we lost by one vote in the senate,” Ellis said, adding “Two years later, it passed the senate but lost of the floor of the House of Representatives.”
State Rep. Hunter explained that the key to this year’s passage of The Free Flow of Information Act was when he brought journalists and prosecutors together to barter a compromise. During a day-long meeting of the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, of which Hunter is Chairman, he met with both groups for 13 hours to work out the final language of H.B. 670.
The final version of H.B. 670 does not give journalists and whistle-blowers total immunity from prosecutors but raises the bar when prosecutors and attorneys want to know who provided information for news items. Under the new law, prosecutors have to convince a judge that the source of the information must be revealed.
Whistle-blowers and other sources close to an important news story are usually unwilling to provide vital information to journalists if their identity is likely is be revealed. The “Free Flow of Information Act” helps news reporters protect their sources of relevant information the public has a right to know.
The James Madison Award is named for the fourth President of the United States and author of the Bill of Rights, which includes in its first amendment, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The annual John Henry Faulk Awards Luncheon is a joint effort by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the State Bar of Texas. It was attended by more than 100 of the state’s prominent journalists, attorneys and citizen activists.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to enhancing the public’s right to know about their government and other public entities. The organization is supported by tax-deductible donations, as well as grants from foundations and private citizens. Membership information is available at www.foift.org. The Freedom of Information Foundation’s main offices are at 3001 North Lamar, Suite 302 in Austin, Texas 78705.
Editor’s Note: For the complete evolution and analysis of H.B. 670, see:http://www.legis.state.tx.us/billlookup/Text.aspx?LegSess=81R&Bill=HB670