in Houston, Texas
State Rep. Todd Hunter files bill to outlaw texting-while-meeting, SLAPP suits
Friday, Mar 11, 2011, 04:03PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles

Here's a message for Texas' public officials: NO TXTS IN MTGS. K?

A bill introduced in the Texas legislature would ban members of a governmental body from texting, instant-messaging or otherwise communicating electronically during public meetings.

The bill is one of three transparency-related proposals filed by state Rep. Todd Hunter, a Republican from Corpus Christi, where there have been some texts flying between city councilmembers. 

Rick Spruill writes in the Caller-Times:

Corpus Christi City Attorney Carlos Valdez last year warned City Council to cut back on texting following a conflict between Councilwoman Nelda Martinez and Councilman Brent Chesney regarding Chesney's cell phone use during council discussions.

"Officials should not text while in public meetings except in emergencies," Martinez said Thursday."We've gotten ahead of ourselves with technology when it comes to open government."

We've beaten up on the city of Corpus Christi a few times for open government issues, so we're not surprised to hear that texting-while-meeting is a problem there. But Corpus isn't the only place where it's a problem.

Austin city councilmembers have been using an online chat client called Spark to communicate with each other privately during meetings and in a way that no transcript is kept of the conversation. (That and other open government problems there have been recently uncovered by our friends at The Austin Bulldog, and you can listen to Bulldog Editor Ken Martin talk about them in the most recent episode of our podcast using the player embedded in this page.)

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Hunter has also filed a bill that would allow courts to make folks who violate the public information act -- people who try to sit on information that should be released -- cough up attorney's fees and court costs to people who sue for access. 

This would be a tremendous improvement to the open records law here. Tennessee, where I used to live and work, had such a provision in its law, enabling my former news organization to warn government officials who tried to sit on records: OK, guys, you can play this little game and sit on these records, but if we sue you over it, we're going to ask for attorney's fees, and when we win our case, you're going to have to write us a check and then explain to your constituents why you threw their tax dollars down the drain paying our attorneys to withhold public information.

In one extreme case, a local board governing trash collection had to pay our newspaper's lawyers more than $10,000 after they lost an utterly ridiculous battle to withhold an incredibly unimportant piece of paper. (I was told they saw it as a test case. In that case, I think they failed the test.) 

Hunter has also filed a bill intended to outlaw "SLAPP" lawsuits -- that's "strategic lawsuit against public participation," a type of lawsuit intended to stop the average person from speaking out on various public policy issues.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, the prominent Houston Democrat, is sponsoring the Senate version of this bill, and if it's passed, Texas would join a number of states in wisely stopping SLAPP.

Hunter and Ellis also spearheaded the passage of Texas' reporter shield law, the Free Flow of Information Act, during the 2009 legislative session, for which they shared the James Madison Award given out that year by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a great organization I'm proud to be a part of. 

The texting-while-meeting bill is House Bill 2977, the attorney's fees bill is House Bill 2980, and the anti-SLAPP bill bears the designations of HB 2973, HB 2974 and SB 1565.


Contact Jennifer Peebles at or on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog, or leave her a voicemail via Google Voice or Skype via the widgets below. 

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Photo of a text message by flickr user adria.richards, used under a Creative Commons license.

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