NNA welcomes open government decision by appeals court

October 17, 2012

The National Newspaper Association today expressed its approval of a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that upholds the Texas Open Meetings Law. A group of city government officials had argued that requiring them to discuss their work in open meetings was a violation of their own free speech rights.

But the court said the Texas law’s requirements were not a First Amendment violation.

“Transparency is furthered by allowing the public to have access to government decision making,” the court said. The case is Asgeirsson v. Abbott, handed down Sept. 25, 2012.

Asgeirsson and a group of fellow city council members in Alpine, TX, have carried on a long-running court battle over the Texas Open Meetings Act because of the criminal penalties in the law. Following two indictments against city council members for holding e-mail discussions about public matters without complying with open meeting requirements, local officials sued. Though the indictments were dropped, some local council members continued to argue that fear of criminal prosecution was inhibiting their free speech. Over more than six years, dozens of local Texas officials and five cities have been involved in multiple appeals because of the open meetings law’s requirements.

The appeals court’s decision today upholds a district court decision that the open meetings law may affect the officials’ speech, but that because the law applies regardless of the content of the speech it does not offend the First Amendment.

NNA President Reed Anfinson said the court had put the emphasis in the proper place: the public’s right to know.

“This was an issue about public officials having an obligation to speak their minds in front of their constituents. Doing so requires courage at times, but it is essential so that these public servants are on the record with their thoughts. Whatever they have to say may be insightful or show simple common sense on a matter before the elected body. But their comments can also reveal prejudice, ignorance, and self-serving motives, all of which the voting public has a fundamental right to hear and judge, “Anfinson said.

NNA appeared in an amicus brief before the court authored on behalf of Belo Corp. and other newspaper associations by James Ho, an attorney with Gibson Dunn and Crutcher in Dallas.

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