Journalists, FOI advocates urge passage of third party allegation law

AUSTIN – Advocates for watchdog reporting testified Monday in favor of a Senate bill that provides limited protections for news accounts about potential wrongdoing that are based on third party allegations.

Senate Bill 627 would codify what has been part of common law since 1990, said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, as she introduced her bill before the Senate State Affairs Committee, which she chairs.

Laura Prather, a First Amendment attorney and co-chair of the FOI Foundation of Texas legislative committee, testified that libel law is currently unsettled in this area because of a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling. News reporters covering issues of public concern oftentimes must rely on allegations made by individuals even if the allegations are not yet part of a police or government investigation, she said.

Journalists need to be able to report based on third party allegations if they do so accurately while adhering to Texas libel laws, bill supporters testified. For example, reports on alleged abuse of special education students in the Houston area were based on “highly credible allegations by whistleblowers,” said Greg Groogan of Fox 26 News.

Third party allegation reporting also has been used in coverage of the Veterans Administration scandal and state health and human services contracting problems, witnesses said.

Others testifying for the legislation included FOI Foundation board members Paul Watler, a media attorney, and Debbie Hiott, editor of the Austin American-Statesman; several individual journalists; and representatives of the Texas Association of Broadcasters and the Texas Press Association. Watler noted that the proposed legislation would create a qualified, not an absolute, privilege for journalists.

Representatives of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association opposed the bill, saying there are already legal protections for journalists and that new law shouldn’t be created to protect reporting on untruthful allegations.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, repeatedly asked witnesses whether the measure would protect malicious reporting done by those who are not credible journalists. Huffman said the bill is a “work in progress,” and left it as pending business.

“I intend to get this right,” Huffman said.