Press Freedom Under Attack in Texas Legislature

AUSTIN (CN) — A Texas Republican introduced bills in the state House that would make it easier for public officials to sue journalists for libel, force reporters to reveal their sources and prevent media outlets from publishing stories about public officials.

State Rep. Ken King, a gas and oil man from the small town of Canadian in the Panhandle, last week introduced House Bill 3387, which would make it easier for public officials to sue reporters for libel, and House Bill 3388, which undermines Texas’s shield law, which allows reporters to keep their records and sources confidential.

Both bills stem from an unsuccessful libel suit brought by a millionaire hedge fund trader, who also lives in Canadian.

Opponents decried both bills as unconstitutional last week, at a public hearing in the Texas House State Affairs Committee.

HB 3388 would prohibit the shield law from applying to any reporter who has worked for or donated to political campaigns within five years, and to any reporter whose employer has worked for or donated to political campaigns in that time.

Proponents testified that it would prevent “political hacks” from gaming the system by claiming journalistic privilege in defamation litigation. They said the bills are not meant to harm “bona fide” reporters.

But Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, disagreed. He told the committee the bill would effectively crush political reporting in Texas, because most news outlets are owned by people or corporations who have been involved in politics in some way.

“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.

Stacy Allen, an attorney representing the Texas Association of Broadcasters, testified that the bill would be “seriously detrimental” to the state’s shield law, enacted in 2009, which he said is highly regarded and has been used as a model by other states.

Allen said the bill punishes journalists for exercising their First Amendment right to political speech and by narrowly defining who qualifies as a journalist.

“The current procedures which are in place have been adequate to limit the application of the [shield law] privilege to journalists,” Allen said. “Courts have been in the business of doing this now for years … resolving questions about whether or not this privilege applies and whether someone is a bona fide journalist is best left to the courts.”

Opponents and news workers also testified against HB 3387, which would make it easier for public officials to sue for libel, and more difficult for media outlets to defend themselves.

The bill would require reporters to specify in a story how a public figure’s actions relate to the figure’s official duties — a clearly unconstitutional provision, according to Austin-based media attorney Laura Prather.

It would also redefine “public figure,” as someone who is known in the community where the story was published.

“If the bill is passed it would ultimately result in self-censorship because rather than fight costly suits and satellite litigation, people would just simply stop reporting on what otherwise would be newsworthy events,” Prather said at the hearing.

Both of King’s bills stem from an unsuccessful libel case brought by a hedge fund operator and school board trustee in 2012.

Salem Abraham, a multimillionaire hedge fund trader, also from Canadian, lost his libel suit against an Internet blog affiliated with an influential conservative group called Empower Texans.

The blog erroneously reported that Abraham had been forcefully removed from a meeting with then-Governor Rick Perry. Because the Texas Supreme Court considered Abraham a public figure, he had the burden of proving that the false information was published with “actual malice.”

Abraham lost the case and had to pay $76,000 in legal fees.

He testified in favor of the bills at the April 12 committee hearing.

“I was sanctioned for trying to defend my reputation, when everyone agrees I was lied about,” Abraham said. “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.”

The bills were left pending in committee.

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