The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t have time for speciousness and frivolity. We wish we could say the same for public officials from 15 Texas cities, including Rockport. They spent nearly nine years trying to undermine the Texas Open Meetings Act until the court put an abrupt stop to it recently by declining to review their case.
The plaintiffs argued that this cherished bulwark of the principle of open government violated another cherished right — theirs to free speech. How? Well, apparently the notion that two women on the Alpine City Council shouldn’t have e-mailed each other and two other council members privately to discuss official city business, and that they could have faced criminal penalties for having done so, was a tyrannical threat to the First Amendment.
The two council women were indicted but, as is typical of enforcement of the act, never were prosecuted. This law does a lot of good but public officials violate it too often and suffer no real consequence. The criminal penalties, in practice, amount to window dressing.
But those few blunt teeth in the act were the plaintiffs’ primary objection. They saw their indictment ordeal as “suppression of speech,” detrimental to the need for a “robust conversation” on government matters, according to their attorney, Craig Enoch, a former Texas Supreme Court justice.
The act doesn’t prohibit speech. It prohibits public officials from whispering behind the public’s back, out of earshot, when they’re doing the public’s business. It requires quorums of public bodies to meet in public, after having given proper notice to the public they have been entrusted to serve.
We know the First Amendment. The First Amendment is a friend of ours (we’re exercising it now, robustly). Allowing the public to overhear public officials’ speech in public is no violation of First Amendment rights.
That’s pretty much how the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saw it last year. The court ruled that Texas’ law against sneaky governing doesn’t limit speech; it just promotes the public’s trust and discourages corruption, is all. The plaintiffs’ argument to the contrary amounted to discouraging the public’s trust and promoting corruption. They should be ashamed of themselves and voters should remember who they are.
We’re also curious how much of the public’s money was wasted on this case. The tally should include the state’s time and effort defending the Open Meetings Act.
Speaking of the state’s time and effort, defense of the act falls under Attorney General Greg Abbott’s job description. So we think it’s only fair that he should have the last word. Here’s the statement he issued the day of the decision, with which we agree robustly:
“Open, transparent government is fundamental to our democratic system of government. Today’s decision ensures that the Texas Open Meetings Act will continue holding elected officials accountable to conduct the taxpayers’ business in the light of day and in a manner that informs the public about government decision-making. Texans have a right to know about their government, their elected representatives and the policies that are being adopted on the public’s behalf and, thanks to the ruling, that openness will continue.”
Corpus Christi Caller-Times