• June 3, 2015

TEXAS VIEW: Ruling is victory for transparency - Odessa American: Views

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TEXAS VIEW: Ruling is victory for transparency

THE POINT — Government must operate

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Posted: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 8:12 pm

Texas laws on public information and open meetings are only as effective as the penalties that compel officials to take notice and follow them. People in positions of power are not naturally disposed to be conscientious about public disclosure, seeing requirements to share information and conduct business in the light of day as nuisances.

The threat of criminal penalties puts teeth in the state's open government laws. In the case of the Texas Open Meetings Act, a violation is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

For six years, plaintiffs representing municipalities from across the state — though none from the San Antonio area — have been trying to emasculate the Open Meetings Act.

In two essentially identical cases, they have argued that the criminal penalties amount to an unconstitutional infringement of free speech because the law is vague and overly broad.

In fact, the law is narrowly tailored to address official actions. “The Texas Open Meetings Act does not impede the freedom of speech,” U.S. District Judge Robert Junell noted in his ruling against the plaintiffs in the first iteration of the case. “The act simply requires speech to be made openly, and in the presence of interested public, as opposed to ‘behind closed doors.’ ”

The 5th Circuit Court dismissed that case. But a new set of plaintiffs filed a new case making the same argument. Last year, Junell ruled against them again, noting it was “nonsensical to say a government would attempt to suppress speech by requiring disclosure of that speech at an open meeting.”

Now a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court has unanimously affirmed Junell's ruling a second time. Given this track record, you might expect the plaintiffs to give up. Instead, their attorneys have vowed to take the case to the full 5th Circuit Court and the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

The spectacle of local government officials fighting to weaken a law that ensures transparency and accountability is bad enough. The fact that taxpayers in Alpine, Big Lake, Pflugerville and Rockport are being forced to subsidize this battle against good government and common sense demonstrates the need for having such laws — with criminal penalties — on the book.

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