Reporters ask for rehearing on decision restricting open meetings law

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is concerned about a federal appeals court decision that puts the free speech rights of elected officials above their responsibilities to conduct government business in a transparent, accountable manner. -DB

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Press Release
May 11, 2009

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) to rehear a case in which a panel of the court questioned the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Attorney General, who is defending the law.

In the case, Rangra v. Brown, two Alpine City Council members were prosecuted under the Texas Open Meetings Act for exchanging e-mail messages about the time and content of a meeting. The council members were accused of violating a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act that requires all deliberations and actions of government officials to be taken with a quorum in a public meeting. In response, they brought a lawsuit against the state of Texas arguing that the law violated their right to free speech under the First Amendment.

On April 27, a panel of the Fifth Circuit held that the Texas Open Meetings Act potentially restricted the free speech rights of elected officials and thus was subject to a heightened constitutional standard of review.

“If this decision is allowed to stand, local elected officials throughout the 5th Circuit could violate the open meetings laws in their states with impunity,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “Such a scenario would make a mockery of open government in those states.”

The Texas Attorney General filed a petition for rehearing before the full court and the Reporters Committee’s friend-of-the-court brief supports that petition.

“As a result of this decision, open meetings and open records law in this Circuit and at the federal level are likely to be challenged on similar First Amendment grounds, particularly where they have criminal sanctions such as the Texas statute,” the brief argued. “Widespread challenges of open meetings laws by elected officials wanting to avoid accountability could threaten the democratic process and encourage officials to violate open government laws with impunity.”