New Texas laws protect public’s right to know

AUSTIN – Texans will gain access to private university police records and more easily observe public meetings because of action this legislative session, while journalists can continue robust reporting on allegations of wrongdoing.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas pressed for these and other transparency measures in the 84th Legislature, which concluded Monday.

One highlight was passage of Senate Bill 627, allowing journalists to accurately report on wrongdoing accusations that are not yet part of a government inquiry. It codifies what has been common law in Texas for 25 years and clarifies a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling. This bill helps all Texans by protecting the free flow of information.

“By passing SB 627, the Legislature has ensured the ability of the media to report on critical information that can lead to government investigations and legislative reform,” said First Amendment attorney Laura Prather, co-chair of the FOI Foundation’s legislative committee.

Calling the bill a “significant free speech measure,” Prather thanked Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, for their efforts in passing it and Gov. Greg Abbott for signing it into law late last week.

Another victory for open government was passage of Senate Bill 308, pertaining to the records of private university police departments. The legislation by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, makes those records subject to the Texas Public Information Act. Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, sponsored the bill in the House.

The legislation came in response to violence involving police from Rice University in Houston and the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio. Abbott signed the bill Monday.

Other important open government bills sent to the governor include:

House Bill 283, by Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, requiring governmental bodies over a certain population to make video and audio recordings of public meetings available online.

Senate Bill 27, by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, requiring telephone meetings held by university regents to be broadcast online.

House Bill 1036, by Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, requiring law enforcement agencies to report to the attorney general officer-involved injuries or deaths.

The FOI Foundation of Texas and its volunteers tracked 250 bills affecting access to information. In addition to advocating for positive open government legislation, the foundation worked against bills that blocked public access.

“We offered the Texas Legislature a clear reminder that government operates best in the light, and that an informed public is the greatest guardian of our transparent and open government,” said constitutional litigator Arif Panju, co-chair of the FOI Foundation’s legislative committee.

Among the failed bills that would have hindered open government were proposals to remove public notices from newspapers and publish them exclusively online, in most cases on government websites. The FOI Foundation of Texas and other open government advocates pointed out that millions of Texans still do not have Internet access at home and that newspapers serve as an independent source of information. The Legislature instead ordered an interim study on the issue before the 2017 session.

Several legislators from both political parties led the way this year in promoting transparency and protecting the people’s right to know, noted Kelley Shannon, executive director of the FOI Foundation of Texas.

“We have a proud history of open government in our state, and these new laws will help carry on that tradition,” Shannon said.