We appreciate the recent ruling by a three-judge federal panel upholding the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings Act .
There should be no surprise at our approval. We would expect journalists to be universally pleased with the decision from the panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Texans, who ultimately benefit from the legality of requiring meetings to be open to the public, should feel the same way.
The Texas Legislature acted on behalf of the public when it passed the first version of the act in 1967 and in the amendments to the act passed since then. The lawmakers intended to make government more open by ensuring the public would have legal access to public meetings.
Not every member of the public could attend government meetings, but all of them have access to news coverage of the meetings. The journalists represent the public at meetings and report to their audiences what happened.
We agree with the statement issued after the ruling by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who represented the state in the lawsuit against the Texas Open Meetings Act, when he said, “Today’s ruling is a great victory for democracy and the First Amendment.”
The recent federal ruling began in a state lawsuit eight years ago against members of the Alpine City Council, alleging a majority of the members were discussing official business by e-mail.
Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, which is often called TOMA, the only way a majority of elected officials can address official business is in a public meeting in which the notice of the meeting was published at least 72 hours in advance.
The lawsuit against the Alpine officials was dismissed after the statute of limitations expired.
Fifteen municipal elected officials from the state, including four from Alpine, later challenged TOMA, alleging it restricted free speech and was vague and overbroad.
The state district court ruled against the plaintiffs, saying the law required disclosure rather than restricting speech. The Fifth Circuit panel upheld the state court ruling.
Some officials have expressed concern the open meetings law could inadvertently be violated with use of e-mails and social media. We believe one of the many responsibilities that must be accepted by a person elected to public office is to learn the requirements of the open meetings law and make certain he or she is following those requirements.