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I'll be testifying Wednesday before the Texas Senate Jurisprudence Committee in favor of a bill aimed at being sure the media cannot be gagged.

You may read an analysis of the bill here. The bill clarifies 2007 legislation that could be construed to limit the media's ability to report on important issues.

The analysis puts the unintended consequence this way: "This language may be construed to be used to intimidate the media from reporting on issues that might come before a grand jury. In addition, due to the broadness of the language, a subpoena may be used as a gag tactic in order to prevent coverage of a newsworthy event."

The state's press associations and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas have asked me to tell the story of the Advocate's struggle to report on what we've dubbed "Law and Disorder." Regular readers don't need to go on, but I'll summarize my testimony here:

  • City officials came to the newspaper with concerns about a criminal investigation into the Victoria district attorney's chief of staff. They said they feared the investigation was being improperly handled.

  • We reported those concerns after a grand jury indicted the chief of staff on charges he sexually assaulted a teenage boy. This assault was alleged to have occurred while the chief of staff was Victoria County sheriff.

  • The day after we reported the city officials' concerns, the district attorney convened a grand jury and issued a subpoena to our lead investigative reporter. He also subpoenaed and later indicted four city officials.

  • During the subsequent 18 months, our investigative reporter received five subpoenas, I received two as editor, and our court reporter also received one. Early on, the district attorney suggested we could be prosecuted for reporting we received a subpoena served in the middle of a newsroom. The district attorney also told our reporter that he could be prosecuted for receiving allegations of wrongdoing in much the same way the Watergate reporters could have faced criminal penalties for receiving information from Deep Throat. We considered all of this to be an effort to intimidate the newspaper.

  • Meanwhile, the DA's chief of staff pleaded guilty to perjury, although questions remain about the handling of his investigation.

A judge recently barred the district attorney from handling the separate perjury case against the city officials. Despite all of the subpoenas along the way, we've continued to cover this issue of high importance to our community at considerable legal expense to our company.

We respectfully ask this committee to approve this bill and help the news media serve its important government watchdog role. We should not be silenced because we ask hard questions or because we give voice to whistle-blowers.