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TAB legislative initiatives advance; restrictive photography bill pulled down

With less than seven weeks left in the regular legislative session, TAB’s top newsroom legislative initiative, a bill to address a disastrous Texas Supreme Court ruling that hampers reporting third party allegations, passed out of Senate committee on Monday.

The 2013 Neely v. Wilson court ruling set 20 years of case law on its ear and impedes the ability of journalists to conduct investigative reports based on third party allegations – even those made by a regulatory body. 

The Senate State Affairs Committee approved a committee substitute for SB 627 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, in an 8-0 vote.  

The measure now moves to the Senate floor for consideration.

The move comes after weeks of hard fought negotiations with the Texas Trial Lawyers Association by TAB Newsroom Legislative Committee member Laura Prather of Haynes and Boone, LLP. 

The two ultimately reached an agreement on compromise language.

A hearing on the HB 1766, the House companion bill by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, is expected in the next week in anticipation of the Senate bill’s trek to the lower chamber.

Since 1990, Texas courts have recognized protection of media reports on third party allegations brought by whistleblowers, whether an investigation had begun or not. 

Media defendants had to prove that the underlying claims were, in fact, made and accurately reported.

Absent this protection, media reports on matters of public concern are threatened.

If sued, media defendants can depend only on the substantial truth defense if the underlying accusations in the report are ultimately found accurate by an investigation. 

Delays in beginning a formal investigation and lack of clarity in determining when an investigation is “closed” further complicate the process while leaving journalists vulnerable to litigation.

Most investigative reporting relies on third party allegations or “whistleblowers”. 

Such vital watch-dog reporting by Texas newsrooms directly benefits the public and often leads to legislative reform and criminal prosecution. 

Recent high profile examples include VA medical care, CPRIT grants, Medicaid fraud, the Texas Youth Commission and the ongoing 21CT contract scandal.

Tax issues

TAB’s effort to reinstate the sales tax exemption for digital radio transmitters cleared its first hurdle last week when it was passed by the House Ways & Means Committee. 

The exemption was in place for eight years before being rescinded in an administrative hearing at the Comptroller’s office because of a lack of clarity in the authorizing statute.

HB 2507, authored by Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, was supported in testimony by Ben Downs of Bryan Broadcasting and Kevin Anderson of KKHA Bay City. 

The Senate companion, SB 1030, is being carried by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and will be heard in the Senate Finance Committee soon.

A measure advanced jointly by TAB and the Motion Picture Association of America to clarify the franchise tax liability for companies with operations in other states was heard in the House tax-writing committee and left pending which is routine. 

The bill would establish that the Comptroller should attribute revenue from content licensing to the state in which the purchaser is located, rather than where the ultimate viewer is located.

The effort is being supported by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, with SB 1783, and Reps. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, and Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, with HB 2896 and HB 3482, respectively.

Villalba pulls police photography bill

Another measure which would hinder newsrooms’ ability to cover law enforcement, HB 2918 by Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, has been pulled down by the bill author who will not request a bill hearing for the proposed law.

The measure would have made it illegal for a citizen to record images within 25 feet of police activity.

It provided a defense for a newsroom employee who photographed the actions of officers, but because stringers are technically not newsroom employees, they could have been at risk.

TAB, the Texas Press Association and the National Press Photographers Association met with Villalba prior to the bill being scheduled for hearing, to express newsrooms’ concerns about the bill.

Villalba pulled the bill from the hearing.

On Friday he told the Dallas Morning News that he is pulling the measure from consideration and will not ask for a bill hearing.

Villalba noted opposition to the bill from the far-left and far-right. 

Even Texas’ largest law enforcement group, the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, opposed the measure.

“I think the public has spoken very loudly,” Villalba told the Morning News.

Questions?  Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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