Freedom of the press is one of the founding principles of the United States — it's right there in the Constitution and everything — but still, one Texas lawmaker is trying to limit that freedom.
State Representative Ken King, a Republican from Canadian, a tiny town in the Panhandle, has filed a pair of bills in the 85th Biennial Texas Legislative Session aimed at making it more difficult to write about public figures and a lot easier to sue journalists who do so.
King recently introduced House Bill 3387, which would make it easier for public officials to sue reporters for libel. And he didn't stop there, following up with House Bill 3388, which targets the state's shield law, the statute that lets journalists keep their sources and records confidential.
The reason behind King's sudden interest in what reporters can and can't do is such a typical bit of small-town politics that it's almost cute. King was reportedly inspired to file this proposed legislation in the wake of a failed lawsuit brought by Salem Abraham, a millionaire hedge-fund operator and school board trustee, in 2012. Abraham just so happens to also live in Canadian, go figure.
Anyway, Abraham filed a lawsuit claiming libel after a blog tied to Empower Texans reported that Abraham had been forcibly removed from a meeting with then-governor Rick Perry. It turned out the story was indeed incorrect, but because the Texas Supreme Court deemed Abraham to be a public figure, he not only had to prove the story was false but also had to prove that it had been published with "actual malice" of intent.
Abraham lost the case and had to pay $76,000 in legal fees.
So, in the aftermath of that, King happened to come up with these bills that were filed earlier this month. Abraham testified at a committee hearing on behalf of the bill, according to Courthouse News:
“I was sanctioned for trying to defend my reputation, when everyone agrees I was lied about. It seems that everyone here knows about the First Amendment. There are other amendments to the Constitution and other rights in the Bill of Rights, one of which is defending your reputation.”
Opponents insist that both bills are unconstitutional, but HB 3388 is particularly troubling. The bill proposes to lift the Texas shield law from any reporter who has been employed or has donated to a political campaign within the last five years or whose employer has employed or donated to a political campaign in the last five years. For some reason, those against the bills say that such measures will be a direct hit on the freedom of the press.
Meanwhile, supporters maintain that these bills are aimed only at "political hacks" and are not intended to take away the rights of "bona fide" journalists.
Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, nixed that claim while he was testifying against the bill before the Texas House State Affairs Committee. “The way HB 3388 is written, if any of those shareholders were involved in political activity as described in the bill, then the limited reporter’s privilege that we now enjoy would not apply to the employees of that newspaper, because their bosses, their owners, were involved in the political process,” Baggett said.
The end result would be a disaster for political reporting in the Lone Star State because most of the reporters covering Texas politics would find themselves unprotected by the state shield laws.
HB 3387 is a little more modest in its goals. The bill simply seeks to redefine what constitutes a public figure to mean specifically someone who is known in the community where the story is published. But the proposed legislation doesn't stop there. It would also require reporters to include in their stories how exactly a public figure's actions relate to the figure's official duties. So if a public figure is, let's say, caught consuming cocaine, reporters will have to spell out clearly how that action relates to the public figure's official duties or open themselves up to lawsuits.
The bill has had a committee hearing but has been left pending in committee. Based on what it would do to press freedom, let's hope it stays there.
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