First Amendment rights, open government essential to democracy

By Kelley Shannon
Executive Director
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
Sept. 4, 2014

Defending the U.S. Constitution is popular these days, when it centers on gun rights, states’ rights or search and seizure protections.

As we guard the principles of our nation’s founders, let’s not overlook the all-important First Amendment of the Constitution and its guarantee of free speech and free press, which, along with public access to government information, are crucial to our democracy.

The non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas has been fighting for these First Amendment liberties and the doctrine of open government since the foundation was created more than 35 years ago.

Open government supporters will gather Sept. 12 in Austin at the FOI Foundation of Texas state conference to exchange ideas on these subjects and learn about the latest laws and court cases affecting access to information. The conference will address courtroom and court record openness, social media uses in open government and updates to the Texas Public Information Act. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson is the luncheon keynote speaker. The public is welcome to register to attend at www.foift.org.

The State Bar of Texas presents its Gavel Awards to journalists at the conference, and the FOI Foundation bestows its James Madison Award on an open government and First Amendment champion.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” warned James Madison, the main architect of the Constitution. He wrote that the spread of knowledge is “the only guardian of true liberty.”

Today, Americans clamor for government information amid such explosive incidents as the Michael Brown shooting and protests in Ferguson, Mo., and in calmer settings every day at county courthouses, school board meetings and city budget hearings.

Imagine attending a public meeting about the hiring of a new police chief. Suddenly, city council members go into a closed-door session, and you wonder whether they can legally meet in private. Or, perhaps you’ve requested records from your school district about its classroom curriculum and you’re told you can have those documents – but it will cost you hundreds of dollars.

The Texas Open Meetings Act, the Texas Public Information Act and associated state cost rules govern these real-life scenarios, and all Texans should become familiar with those laws.

Volunteers of the non-partisan FOI Foundation of Texas have worked to close loopholes and prevent new ones in the Public Information Act. Last year, an important victory for open government came when state lawmakers passed, and Gov. Rick Perry signed, a bill clarifying that information, even if it’s conducted on a government official’s private electronic device, is public record if the information deals with official business.

Another recently passed state law protects the First Amendment rights of all citizens to speak out on matters of public concern by allowing for a quick dismissal of resulting meritless lawsuits. Yet another law known as the Free Flow of Information Act protects the identity of news organizations’ confidential sources in many circumstances, creating an environment in which sources are more likely to reveal alleged wrongdoing of public interest.

Those kinds of open government efforts will continue when the Legislature meets in 2015.

The battle for open government and freedom of speech began in our nation during “days of difficulty and danger,” as George Washington wrote of the American Revolution. Some of today’s public records and public meetings skirmishes may seem minor in comparison, but the founders felt that an informed citizenry is essential to the future of the United States. That fight does not end.