A Fifth Circuit federal appeals panel on Tuesday upheld the criminal penalty provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act against a challenge by a cadre of city officials who argued it chills free speech.
Texas government officials sued the state, arguing the open meetings act restricts their First Amendment rights.
The law requires that most state and local government meetings be open to the public, with a few notable exceptions, including the state legislature, governors and mayors and other executive-level policymakers. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $500 and up to six months in jail.
The three-judge panel on Tuesday unanimously affirmed a district court decision that found the law’s criminal penalties do not curtail free speech, and instead are designed to compel its disclosure.
Attorneys for the city officials argued the law discourages political speech and is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.
The panel found that the city officials only offered one example of why they would have to discuss public business privately: When the city of Hurst was considering the prohibition of a then-legal substance and did not want to disclose where it was being sold. The attorneys for the city officials argued that having that discussion privately would not lead to corruption, so it should be considered outside of the law’s sweep.
But the panel wrote that “notion fails, because it ignores (the law’s) other goals apart from reducing corruption.”
“Having that discussion privately would decrease government transparency, and the state has determined that the benefits of making these discussions public outweigh any harm done by the disclosure of information,” the judges wrote.
Here’s the opinion. Nice to know that the Fifth Circuit is still capable of making a decent ruling. The plaintiffs say they will appeal to the full Fifth Circuit court, and if necessary to SCOTUS, and who knows what they’ll make of it. But until then, good sense has prevailed. Grits and the Trib have more.