Texas officials who say their state Open Meetings Act is too strict are hoping to remove criminal penalties, including a $500 fine and up to six months in jail.
The last time an official went to jail for violating the law was in 1989, according to a story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, but city officials say the strict law abridges their First Amendment rights to say what they want in secret.
This growing movement in Texas was bolstered by a Circuit Court ruling last year deciding that city council members have free speech protection even while conducting official duties. These officials are arguing they have a right to do public business secretly as a free speech right.
This is turning the First Amendment on its head. Texas journalists and citizens should fight this movement vigorously. It’s inconceivable that courts (and perhaps legislators) could buy into this crazy argument.
The No. 1 problem in freedom of information today is lack of enforcement. Recent research shows the need for stronger open records and meeting laws:
* A 2008 survey of people who used the Indiana public records office found that 91 percent said the biggest problem was lack of enforcement of the laws.
* A 2007 study by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and Better Government Association found a lack of penalties and compliance with open records laws (by the way, Texas got an “F” because of other weaker provisions in its law).
* Last fall at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, Adrianna C. Rodriguez and Laurence B. Alexander presented an analysis of enforcement provisions nationwide. The paper outlined to me what appears a generally weak lay of the land for public records and meeting laws.
* The Associated Press in 2007 found that open meeting laws are sporadically enforced and penalties are mild.
We need stronger laws, not weaker ones!