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TAB’s newsroom legislative package filed at Capitol; lawmakers in bill filing frenzy

Texans mark a big legislative milestone this week at the Capitol – the March 13 regular bill filing deadline. Lawmakers are rushing to beat it; so far, they have filed approximately 4,000 bills.

It remains to be seen if they will break the all-time record set by the 81st Texas Legislature of 7,400 bills filed in the 2009 regular session.

Lawmakers are on pace, however, to match if not surpass the nearly 5,900 measures filed in the 2013 session.

The staff of the Legislative Council, the entity that drafts laws, is burning the candle at both ends and it is clear there will be a bill deluge this week. Sources tell TAB that the Council has nearly 2,000 bills in the works. 

All three pieces of TAB’s newsroom legislative agenda have now been filed by House and Senate lawmakers.

Those bills and their current status are:

Campus P.D. Records / Private Colleges and Universities
SB 308 by John Whitmire, D-Houston

HB 2060 by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston

SB 308 was referred to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on 2/2/15. 

HB 2060 was filed 2/27/15

Would make public the records of a campus police department at a private college or university. 

Sen. Whitmire and Rep. Coleman filed their companion bills after Rice University refused to disclose its campus P.D. records to Houston media outlets after dash cameras captured video of its officers beating a suspected bike thief. 

Custodian of Open Records
HB 1764 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi

HB 1764 was filed 2/23/15.

The Texas Public Information Act enshrines Texans’ right to access the information that our state’s governmental bodies produce. 

It outlines the process by which the public can request that information and how governmental bodies should respond. 

TAB and other Open Government groups helped pass a 2013 law which clarified that public business, even if it is conducted on private electronic devices or in private email accounts, is public record. 

The 2013 law essentially codified what the Texas A.G's office had been ruling for many years.  

Some public officials, however, are refusing to provide these materials to the governmental body to satisfy the requests for that information.

House Bill 1764 amends the existing law by requiring a government officer or employee in possession of public records to hand that information over to the governmental body upon request. 

It also creates a criminal penalty for not doing so which should be helpful as a deterrent to bad actors.

Bill author Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, is a staunch defender of the TPIA and also authored the 2013 revision to the TPIA mentioned above.

Third Party Allegations
SB 627 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston

HB 1766 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi

SB 627 was heard by the Senate State Affairs Committee on 3/2/15 and left pending. 

HB 1766 was filed 2/23/15.

These companion bills are meant to address a disastrous 2013 Texas Supreme Court ruling, Neely v. Wilson, that set 20 years of case law on its ear and which impedes the ability of journalists to conduct investigative reports based on third party allegations – even those made by a regulatory body. 

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.”

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

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

SB 627/HB 1766 would amend the Civil Practice and Remedies Code under Section 73.002 to create a privilege for "publication of allegations made by a third party regarding matters of public concern, regardless of the truth or falsity of the allegations."

The key here is that it must be a matter of public concern. 

Malicious idle gossip is not covered.  

“Matters of public concern” is defined in Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, Sec. 27.001, as an issue related to health or safety; environmental, economic, or community well-being; the government; a public official or public figure; or a good, product, or service in the marketplace.”

As reported in last week’s TABulletin, SB 627 was heard and left pending by the Senate State Affairs Committee earlier this month. 

TAB and the Texas Press Association arranged testimony in support of the bill. 

Bill language negotiations are ongoing and TAB will provide an update when one is available.

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

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