AUSTIN, Texas Four Texas cities and 15 elected officials have filed a lawsuit against the state seeking to declare part of the Texas Open Meetings Act unconstitutional.
The suit, filed Dec. 14 in federal court in Pecos, claims that the act violates elected officials’ First Amendment free-speech rights by preventing elected officials from speaking in public or private on issues facing the public.
The act prohibits a quorum of members of a government body from deliberating in secret. Violations are punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
But plaintiffs argue that some communication including e-mail or messages sent using social-media Web sites such as Facebook or Twitter by a quorum of elected officials should be allowed outside of a posted meeting.
The cities of Alpine, Big Lake, Pflugerville and Rockport joined the new suit as co-plaintiffs, along with four council members in Alpine and elected officials in Arlington, Boerne, Heath, Hurst, Joshua, Leon Valley, Rockport, Sugar Land, Whitesboro and Wichita Falls. Rod Ponton, a co-counsel in the case and Alpine’s city attorney, said more are expected to join the suit, according to a report in the Austin American-Statesman.
“Under Texas law, taxpayers have a right to know what their elected representatives are doing on their behalf,” said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott. “If a quorum of public officials wants to discuss public business, the law requires that they do so in public. In this case, elected officials, municipalities and critics of open government are turning the First Amendment on its head. Open-meeting laws have been upheld under the First Amendment by every court in the country that has ever considered the issue.”
Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, co-counsel in the case, called the Open Meetings Act “overbroad and vague.”
“We’re here to reaffirm the First Amendment,” DeGuerin said at a news conference at the Capitol on Dec. 14. “It chills the ability of an elected official to speak out for fear of prosecution.”
A similar suit involving the West Texas city of Alpine was dismissed recently by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Abbott, a defendant in the current suit, argued that the Alpine council members who challenged the act lacked legal standing because they were no longer in office.
“If you don’t like the notion of conducting the public’s business in public, you shouldn’t run for office,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.