Texas Lawmaker Accused of Violating Open-Meetings Law

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — An activist who was arrested for trying to record a Texas House committee hearing in March claims in court that state law allows her to film such meetings without media credentials.

Amy Hedtke sued Rep. Byron C. Cook, R-Corsicana, in Travis County District Court on Wednesday. Cook is chairman of the Texas House of Representatives State Affairs Committee.

Also named as defendants are David Sauceda, the sergeant-at-arms for the Texas House of Representatives, and Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS.

Hedtke is a well-known Texas grassroots political activist, according to her legal defense fund web page. She seeks transparency in the political process and does so by recording and live-streaming government proceedings.

The crux of her lawsuit is the interpretation of Texas Government Code Sec. 551.023 of the Open Meetings Act, which states: “A person in attendance may record all or any part of an open meeting of a governmental body by means of a recorder, video camera, or other means of aural or visual reproduction.”

Hedtke says she went to a public hearing of the Texas House State Affairs Committee on March 21 on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. She planned to testify and live stream the proceedings with her cellphone, according to her lawsuit.

Both outside and inside the hearing room were signs saying that only people with Capitol media credentials were allowed to film or record the meeting. The signs also reportedly said the proceedings would be viewable on the internet in real time and later archived.

To obtain media credentials, a person must certify he or she works for a print, broadcast or internet news organization, or a wire service that serves such news organizations.

But Hedtke argues this certification process “prevents citizens from exercising their right to film a public meeting as guaranteed by the Open Meetings Act, Texas Govt. Code 551.023.”

Her complaint claims that, despite what the signs say, hearings are not always streamed in real time due to alleged technical issues, and archived versions are not always made available for the public.

Also, the archived videos “provide a very limited perspective to constituents who may be interested in other aspects of the meeting or viewing angles,” according to the lawsuit.

Hedtke says she entered the hearing room, but was told a few minutes into her Facebook live stream that she could not record.

She replied by saying Texas law allows such recording, but the person allegedly told her “the rules of the House have precedent over that and the Constitution as well.”

Undeterred, Hedtke continued to live-stream and answered questions from her viewers before the hearing had started. According to the lawsuit, she was later approached by a DPS corporal who said that Rep. Cook, as committee chairman, had the right to prohibit people from recording committee hearings.

Hedtke told the corporal Sec. 551.023 gave her the right to stay and record and showed her the text of the law on her laptop. Hedtke gave the same argument for her right to record to Sauceda, the sergeant-at-arms, who told her she did not have that right, the lawsuit states.

When Hedtke refused to leave the hearing, two DPS officers allegedly carried her out of the room, handcuffed her and took her out of the building.

She says she was later put in a DPS vehicle, taken to jail and charged with criminal trespass and resisting arrest.

“While in the custody of DPS, she was restrained in a prisoner transport chair for about two hours, had a hood placed on her head several times, was disrobed twice (once in a cell that left her visible to hallway traffic), placed in a padded cell, and left naked for several hours before finally being released. She had to wrap a blanket around her to speak with her attorney,” the lawsuit states. (Parentheses in original.)

Hedtke claims that at no point during these events did she act disrespectful or engage in disorderly conduct. She cites the videos from her live stream and her arrest as evidence.

The resisting-arrest charge against her has since been dismissed, but the trespass charge remains, according to the complaint.

Chairman Cook’s chief of staff allegedly confirmed that it was Cook’s policy to ban recording for people without media credentials and said the Texas Constitution gave him this right.

Hedtke says there is nothing in the state’s founding document to support that claim.

“If that were the case, defendants should be able to reference some House Rule that was passed to support that assertion, but they have not done so, and cannot, because no such rule exists,” the lawsuit states. “Having enacted the Open Meeting Act, and having passed no contrary rule, no committee chairman may simply decide to ignore that law and violate it.”

Rep. Cook’s office did not immediately respond Thursday to an email request for comment.

Hedtke seeks a writ of mandamus and injunctive relief preventing Texas government officials from enforcing the no-recording rule and violating the Open Meetings Act.

She is represented by Warren Norred of Norred Law in Arlington.

The law firm said in a press release, “The Texas House voted for the Open Meetings Act. To our knowledge, they’ve never voted as an organization to allow committee chairman to make whatever rules they want regarding committee meetings and hearings, such as institute a blanket ban to prevent video livestreaming by the unwashed citizen activists who seek to broadcast the behavior of those running the show.”

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