The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear arguments about the constitutionality of the criminal sanction provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act, ending the long-running legal battle over a statute that prohibits government officials from talking about public business in private.
The Court also declined to hear a case involving a First Amendment defense to a penalty for disclosing sealed records.
The Court’s refusal to hear the open meetings challenge leaves in place a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.), which ruled last fall that the criminal sanctions used to enforce the act do not violate the First Amendment. The act makes intentional violations of the law by government officials punishable by jail time and fines.
In 2009, more than 20 state officials filed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the 1967 law, arguing that it restricted their freedom of speech by prohibiting what they could talk about in private.
The lower court ruled that the law is not vague or overbroad and does not target the content of officials’ speech and is a reasonable restriction in light of its transparency goal.
“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,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement Monday.
Calls to the attorney who filed the suit were not immediately returned.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that the criminal sanctions in the law is constitutional. Citing the works of framers including John Adams and James Madison, the brief noted that “the First Amendment was never intended to be used as a means to strike down laws designed to foster government transparency.”
The Supreme Court also declined to review United States v. Roe, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.) found in 2011 that a court order prohibiting a lawyer from disseminating sealed court records in the prosecution of John Doe, an unnamed businessman turned government cooperator, did not violate the lawyer's First Amendment rights. A lower court entered the order after the lawyer, Roe, attached the documents, which were sealed after Doe pleaded guilty in 1998, to a civil racketeering lawsuit the attorney brought against Doe.
Roe sought review from the Supreme Court, and The Reporters Committee filed an amicus brief supporting Roe's petition, arguing that sealing entire case files and wholly omitting cases from the public docket violates the First Amendment-based right of access to judicial proceedings and records.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Texas – Open Government Guide: III. MEETING CATEGORIES — OPEN OR CLOSED.