By Kelley Shannon
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
Private university police beat a man suspected of stealing a bicycle. The violent episode was captured on a dash camera, but when questions arose the police refused to release the complete video.
City officials used their personal email accounts to discuss government business, just as Hillary Clinton did as secretary of state. When a citizen sought the local records, which are public under Texas law, city employees claimed their power was limited because they didn’t have custody of the documents.
As matters of widespread public concern come to light – including allegations about potential misconduct in state contracting or that special education students were mistreated – journalists have evaluated and reported on the accusations. But a Texas court case recently called into question the freedom to report on third party allegations that aren’t yet part of a police report or state investigation.
These real scenarios highlight the need for open government and press freedom legislation pending this session at the Texas Capitol. The proposals are especially timely as Sunshine Week is upon us.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative about “the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why.” It is intended for everyone, though it originated with journalists. Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, an expert on the importance of retaining government emails for the sake of accountability and history, points out that news media monitoring is key to maintaining open government.
“The only guarantee we have as citizens that our government will keep public records open is that the media will keep reporting on the issue,” Blanton said.
The Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act are the two main open government laws in our state. We must be vigilant about protecting them while battling attempts to erode them.
Lawmakers last session codified what the attorney general had been ruling for years – that messages in private email accounts or on private devices are public record if they pertain to public business. Some governmental bodies enforced the new law. Others said they couldn’t gather the messages because they didn’t have custody of them.
So this session bills by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would close that custodian loophole and clarify in the Texas Public Information Act that records in private accounts dealing with public business are to be handed over to a governmental body when requested.
Another open government proposal follows the videotaped beating and injury of a man by Rice University police in Houston and the audiotaped shooting death of a student by Incarnate Word University police in San Antonio. A measure by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, declares that private university police records are indeed public. Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed the House version.
Meanwhile, a measure by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and Hunter would ensure that Texas journalists continue to accurately report on third-party allegations. (According to Factcheck.org, the existence of Clinton’s private email account was revealed in March 2013 when the Smoking Gun website reported on a hacker who broke into the account of a former Clinton aide. Widespread reporting has occurred lately amid State Department requests for her emails.)
Additional “sunshine” bills would provide transparency in local government budgets and debt; post more state records online; repeal exemptions allowing closed records and meetings that deal with economic development deals; and require recordings of certain grand jury proceedings involving police officer cases.
Every legislative session brings attempts to reduce public access. One bill this year would let government employees reject the public information requests of non-Texans, which is a shortsighted approach. Others would move public notices from newspapers, their websites and a central independent online repository to government websites, making them more difficult to track and removing checks and balances.
We must keep public records easily accessible to help everyone participate in our democracy. More sunshine, not less, is what we need in Texas.