House bills would stifle press coverage, free speech

By Fred Hartman - Guest Column
April 18, 2017 at 4:18 p.m.

Fred Hartman

Fred Hartman   Contributed Photo for The Victoria Advocate

There is bad stuff happening in Austin.

The House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on two bills last week that would dismantle the reporter's shield law and make it more difficult for news organizations to defend defamation lawsuits.

Media outlets are up in arms about the bills sponsored by state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, and legal experts testified during the hearing that both measures are unconstitutional.

It would be nice if King would just say the purpose of his bill is to punish Empower Texans, the ultra-conservative political group headed by Michael Quinn Sullivan and financially backed by Midland oil and gas billionaire Tim Dunn.

It's the worst-kept secret in the Texas Capitol.

Empower Texans has been a thorn in the side of House Speaker Joe Straus and mainstream Republican legislators. The organization issues a voting scorecard each session to measure if Republican legislative members are conservative enough for its liking.

If not, the group will often find a primary opponent to take on the incumbent Republican. Thus far, Empower Texans and Sullivan have been the perfect foil for Straus, who has been speaker since 2009 and has vanquished opposition from some of the more conservative House Republicans.

Empower Texans also publishes a website and newsletter, and considers itself a news organization. Even though most people consider them political advocates and lobbyists instead of professional journalists, the group has successfully used the journalist status as a defense in several court cases.

One of King's bills would prevent a reporter from relying on the shield law if the reporter or the news organization he works for has made a political expenditure, been a treasurer of a campaign or controlled a political action committee within the last five years.

The other bill tries to change a constitutional privilege created by the First Amendment and recognized in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan for stories about public officials and public figures.

King's awful reporter's shield law bill has a Senate companion bill sponsored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. If either bill became law, they would have a chilling effect on news gathering and likely cause a rash of new lawsuits.

No matter how you feel about Empower Texans, the Texas Legislature shouldn't be trampling on free speech rights as a way to silence critics.

As University of Texas media law professor David Donaldson testified, "I think it's a very bad idea for the Legislature to become involved in deciding questions about who a journalist is based on their political beliefs or based on their decision to become involved in politics."

This is a misguided effort to change well-established laws that allow reporters to protect their sources and encourage whistleblowers to come forward to report wrongdoing and government corruption.

It would also meddle with a long-held legal tradition that allows the press to hold elected officials and other public figures accountable.

Fred Hartman is vice chairman of the board of Hartman Newspapers, L.P., which is based in Rosenberg. He may be contacted at fbh@hartmannews.com.


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