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TAB newsroom legislative agenda advances

With less than six weeks remaining in the 84th Texas Legislature, TAB is making steady progress in advancing its package of four measures intended to protect newsrooms, three of which were announced at TAB’s Legislative Day conference.

One bill has already crossed from one chamber to the other and another is poised to do so this week.

SB 308 by John Whitmire, D-Houston, a bill that would make public the records of a campus police department at a private college or university, passed the Senate in a 31-0 vote in late March.

Whitmire filed his bill after Rice University refused to disclose its campus P.D. records to Houston journalists after dash cameras recorded its officers beating a suspected bike thief. 

The legislation is awaiting its bill referral to the House Higher Education Committee, expected sometime this week, so it can get its House bill hearing to proceed.  

HB 2060 by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, the House companion bill, is already in that committee. Because it’s further along in the process, the Senate version will advance to the governor’s desk if the measure garners House approval.

TAB’s top newsroom legislative priority, SB 627 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, cleared its Senate committee vote last week and is expected to win the full Senate’s approval sometime this week.

It is meant to address a 2013 Texas Supreme Court ruling, Neely v. Wilson, that set 20 years of case law on its ear by impeding the ability of journalists to conduct investigative reports based on third party allegations – even those made by a regulatory body. 

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

Absent this protection, journalists’ 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.

The House companion bill, HB 1766 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, is scheduled for a hearing this week in the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee in anticipation of the Senate bill’s trek over to the lower chamber.

As with the university police records bill, the Senate version will go to the governor if the House approves.

Meanwhile, the House versions of the remaining two priority newsroom measures are expected to advance to the governor if lawmakers agree.

The first, HB 1764 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, will help clarify a provision contained in a 2013 Open Government law that said public business, even if it is conducted on private electronic devices or in private email accounts, is public record. 

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

HB 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.

The bill is expected to have its House hearing before the end of April. 

The Senate companion measure, SB 1087 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham is in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. 

The second is HB 3997 by Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, which would allow the Texas Attorney General to prosecute Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act cases if the local district or county attorney declined to do so.

Elkins chairs the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee which will hear the bill this week.

TAB took on this issue after the January Legislative Day conference.

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

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