Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fed Court to Texas Pols: No 1st Amendment Right to Closed Door Meetings

List of United States federal courthouses in TexasImage via WikipediaThe U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas last week ruled in Asgeirsson et al. v. Abbott (Case No. P-09-cv-00059) that the Texas Open Meetings Act ("TOMA") [Tex. Govt. Code sec. 551.001(3)] does not infringe on the First Amendment rights of elected officials by requiring them to conduct government meetings in public.

In a 37-page decision denying the plaintiffs' request for declaratory judgment, the federal court held that governmental entities "have no First Amendment right to conduct public business behind closed doors." To the contrary, the court wrote, "free discussion is suppressed when city council members close their meetings to the public."

In a long-waged battle (see "TUOL" posts 2/4/10 and 12/15/09), Texas officials condemned TOMA as constitutionally vague and voiced concern they could face fines and jail for violating its provisions. The court said the statute is content neutral in that it does not inhibit speech based on subject matter or substance, and legitimately serves the government's interests of fostering transparency in the government's decision-making process, shines a light on corruption and fraud and promotes trust in government.

The plaintiffs' plan to appeal the adverse ruling to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, according to a report on the Website for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (www.rcfp.org.).

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