AUSTIN _ Texans will gain greater access to the records and actions of their public officials under several measures supported by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (FOIFT) and approved in the 83rd Legislature.
FOIFT board members from across the state testified in favor of these leading open government proposals and First Amendment protections that won House and Senate passage, and now head to Gov. Rick Perry.
“This is a tremendous step forward,” said Laura Prather, a First Amendment attorney with Haynes and Boone. “We applaud the lawmakers who worked so hard to pass these bills. The people of Texas are the winners because more light will shine on the workings of our government.”
Among the session’s open government successes is an update of the Texas Public Information Act, bringing it into the modern age and codifying attorney general decisions about its application so as to avoid future confusion and wasting of taxpayer dollars on unnecessary litigation. Electronic communications relating to official business would be accessible by law to the public, even if sent from a private email account or mobile device. And, contracts between a state governmental entity and a vendor involving the exchange or creation of public information will be made available to the public.
The attorney general’s office has already ruled that such information is public. The newly passed legislation – championed by longstanding First Amendment proponents, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi – codifies the attorney general rulings into state law as part of the 40-year-old Texas Public Information Act.
“When the law was originally written, there were no such things as email and text messages,” Prather explained.
Lawmakers approved a bill authored by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and sponsored by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, allowing members of a governmental body to communicate in writing between meetings through a publicly accessible online message board without violating the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Another notable piece of approved legislation protecting free speech would encourage those who believe they were defamed in a publication or broadcast to come forward early to request a correction or clarification, thereby reducing any perceived damage and limiting the number of libel lawsuits.
Yet another successful measure clarifies the already existing appeals provision in the anti-SLAPP statute passed in 2011 that aims to protect whistleblowers, news reporters and individuals exercising their First Amendment rights to speak out about matters of public concern. The existing law allows the dismissal of frivolous court cases known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation” or SLAPP suits. The clarification solidifies a movant’s right to quickly appeal a judge’s decision not to dismiss a case.
Overall, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas tracked and spoke out on more than 150 bills during the session that were aimed at further opening government or that threatened to close off public information.
“The people have a right to know what their government is doing,” said Arif Panju, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “The First Amendment protects all speech, including political speech to facilitate self-government, and its exercise depends on access to government information.”
Laura Prather and Arif Panju serve as board members of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and co-chair its legislative committee. The FOIFT is a non-profit organization that promotes open government and the First Amendment. Since 1978, the foundation’s goal has been to ensure the public’s business is conducted in public.
Follow the FOI Foundation on Facebook and on Twitter @TxFOIFT.
KEY OPEN GOVERNMENT BILLS, 83rd LEGISLATURE
SB 1368: Modernizes the Texas Public Information Act by specifying that electronic messages dealing with official business are public and providing that contracts between a state governmental entity and a vendor involving the exchange or creation of public information contain a provision that requires the vendor to make the information publicly available. (SB 1368 was authored by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and sponsored by Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. It was amended with the electronic communication language of SB 1563, authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and sponsored by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi.)
SB 1297: Allows members of a governmental body to communicate in writing about official business between meetings on a publicly accessible, real-time online message board. (Authored by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and sponsored by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.)
HB 1759: Provides a framework for someone who believes he or she has been defamed in a publication or broadcast to come forward in a timely fashion to request a retraction, correction or clarification or else seek only limited civil damages. (Authored by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and sponsored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.)
HB 2935: Clarifies the right to appeal protection for whistleblowers, journalists and bloggers in lawsuits filed with the intent of clamping down on free speech. (Authored by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and sponsored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.)
Contact: Kelley Shannon, Executive Director