by ED STERLING
A case brought by a group of 15 city officials naming the State of Texas and Attorney General Greg Abbott as defendants failed before the New Orleans-based U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 25.
In Asgeirsson et al. v. Abbott, plaintiffs sought to have the court declare the Texas open meetings law “unconstitutionally vague” and “overbroad” primarily because of criminal provisions local governmental officials face if accused of knowingly circumventing the law. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $100 to $500, confinement in jail for one to six months or both.
Plaintiffs’ central argument was that the criminal portion of the law abridges their right to free speech under the First Amendment. However, in a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel, the 5th Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that the law is constitutionally sound.
After the court released its decision on Sept. 25, Abbott said the outcome “… is a great victory for democracy and the First Amendment. The decision further guarantees the public will continue to have access to information about how their government works. Making meetings accessible and allowing the public to see how decisions are made are the foundation of open government. A healthy democracy requires that the public have access to how government operates.”
In 2006, again in 2009-2010 and currently in 2011-2012, sets of more than a dozen city officials from many regions of Texas unsuccessfully brought the same general case and arguments before a federal district court and the 5th Circuit.
Originally adopted by the Texas Legislature in 1967, the open meetings law is intended to discourage public officials from meeting in non-public settings to deliberate on public business. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, invalidating the law potentially would allow government corruption to escape public scrutiny.
Disclosure: Texas Press Association participated in a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the state’s position in Asgeirsson v. Abbott.
Ed Sterling works for the Texas Press Association and follows the Legislature for the association.