Sunshine Week: Free speech, public’s right to know under attack in Texas, so let’s act now

By Kelley Shannon
Executive Director
FOI Foundation of Texas

We Texans are fiercely independent and like to make our views known. On that, surely, we can agree.

Using our First Amendment right to speak out goes hand in hand with access to public information that helps us understand how our government functions.

Unfortunately, both basic American principles – free speech and the people’s right to know – are under attack in Texas. There’s no better time to urge our state lawmakers to protect these precious freedoms than “Sunshine Week,” March 10-16, a nationwide celebration of open government.

The Texas Sunshine Coalition, a diverse public awareness alliance of more than 15 organizations, has formed over the past year and is working at the Capitol to improve government transparency by repairing the Texas Public Information Act.

Atop the coalition’s agenda is restoring the public’s right to information in government contracts with private businesses and in government agreements with non-profits that do extensive government work. Two Texas Supreme Court rulings in 2015 blocked off much of this information.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, filed bipartisan legislation – Senate Bill 943 and House Bill 2189, respectively – to try plug the information black hole that the court created.

Yet another attack on the public’s right to know is the recent Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling declaring part of the Texas Open Meetings Act unconstitutionally vague. The ruling dealt with the “walking quorum” provision that bans leaders of a governmental body from meeting in small separate groups to deliberate and undermine the open meetings law. To many of us Texans, the law is not vague at all – it’s clear that the public’s business must be conducted in the open.

But in response to the court, Sen. Watson and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, quickly filed Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 to clarify the law.

“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson. Phelan added, “Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process. If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”

As for free speech, the good news is we already have a strong state law that protects Texans from meritless lawsuits filed against them in an attempt to bully them into silence and trample their First Amendment rights.

It’s known as the anti-SLAPP statute and protects people posting online reviews, domestic violence victims speaking about abuse, journalists reporting on alleged wrongdoing, law enforcement officers doing their jobs and others who find themselves on the receiving end of a court case meant only to intimidate – a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The Texas Citizens Participation Act, the formal name of the anti-SLAPP law, allows a defendant to get a nuisance lawsuit dismissed fairly quickly if a judge determines it’s a SLAPP case.

One bill filed in the Legislature, however, House Bill 2730, would drastically weaken the Texas Citizens Participation Act. Alternative positive legislation, House Bill 3547 by Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would provide some clarifications in the law, with a narrower approach that preserves free speech protections.

Dozens of organizations have come together through the Protect Free Speech Coalitionto voice support for maintaining the core of the existing anti-SLAPP statute.

In Texas, lawmakers convene in regular session only every two years. Now through May they’re meeting, and this is the time to let legislators know we want them to guard our rights to free speech and public information.

We Texans don’t want to live our lives any other way.