NNA joins court brief over Texas open meeting appeal

The case is another chapter in a long running dispute between some city council members in Alpine, TX, two of whom were indicted for TOMA violations, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who defended the open meetings law.  The Texas law is unusual for its penalties: fines and possible jail terms up to six months.

The indictments were dropped, and no council member was convicted. But argument over whether the First Amendment protects secret meetings rages on.

The disputes began in 2005 when two Alpine officials were indicted by a Brewster County, TX, grand jury for an exchange of emails about a matter before the city council.  The emails were apparently intended to exclude one member of the council.

The council members argued that TOMA infringed upon their abilities to exercise their own First Amendment rights. Lawsuits involving the dispute have been up and down the appellate process in Texas since the first US District Court ruled in favor of the public's right to know. Now the Alpine officials are before the Fifth Circuit for the second time, still maintaining that their right to discuss public business in secret communications is protected by the First Amendment. 

The amicus brief in Asgeirsson v. Abbott, initiated by Belo Corporation, Dallas, TX, and authored by James Ho, Gibson Dunn and Crutcher, is joined by Texas public officials who support TOMA. The case is Diana Asgeirsson v Abbott.

An affidavit in the amicus brief is presented by the fifth member, Nancy DeWitt, the one excluded from the emails. 

"During my time on the Alpine City Council, I experienced attempts by a majority of my colleagues to exclude me from their deliberations on public matters entrusted to our care," Nancy DeWitt, a member of the city council from 2003-05, stated. The brief argues that in addition to protecting the public, the open meetings law protects elected officials whose views may not be shared by the majority from being shut out of discussions.

"National Newspaper Association entered this brief because the threat this Texas case poses to open meetings around the nation is frightening," NNA President Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County (MN) Monitor-News, said. "It is not uncommon for public officials to argue that they cannot conduct business unless they can have private conversations as a group. Further, it is not unusual for a faction to want to discuss strategy on something where they expect public opposition, or fear embarrassment if their true views are known.

"State open meetings laws recognize a need for confidentiality for some sensitive issues. But to throw a First Amendment free speech cloak over private meetings would be to toss out the very meaning of the public's right to know. Public meetings do not threaten the First Amendment; they protect it."

"NNA applauds Belo Corporation and our fellows in other press organizations for stepping up to educate the Fifth Circuit on the importance of doing the public's business in public."

Besides NNA, amici include:

  • Austin American-Statesman
  • A. H. Belo Corporation
  • Daily Commercial Record
  • Daily Court Review
  • Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
  • Louisiana Press Association
  • Mississippi Press Association
  • National Newspaper Association
  • Newspaper Association of America
  • Texas Association of Broadcasters
  • Texas Press Association
  • And 23 public officials

To See a copy of the brief, click here.