Open-records advocates praise new Texas FOI law

Friday, January 14, 2000

Open-government advocates in the Lone Star State are cheering a new state law requiring state and local government offices to post signs advising citizens of their right to obtain records.

But many of these same advocates fear that a U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down this week may have weakened the measure. The high court in Reno v. Condon upheld a federal law that bars from releasing personal driver's license information to the press and public.

Texas' posting law went into effect on Jan. 3. State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, the San Antonio Republican who sponsored the bill, said the statute was designed to alert the public about the availability of government documents.

Wentworth said in a telephone interview that the law was developed out of a special state Senate committee assembled in 1997 to study the effectiveness of the state's Public Information Act. He said committee members toured the state, visiting eight cities and taking testimony from more than 100 witnesses.

Wentworth said the testimony characterized most state and local officials as forthcoming and efficient in providing records to the public. In the cases in which the officials weren't forthcoming, however, the actions were “so egregious that they cried out for some sort of remedy,” he said.

He noted that some officials asked inappropriate questions about the identity and motives of requesters, charged exorbitant fees for copying or withheld documents clearly meant to be public.

During the 1999 legislative session, Wentworth introduced 11 bills designed to update the state's public-information laws. Along with his FOI posting measure, the Legislature and governor also enacted his bills designed to speed up the state attorney general's consideration of open-records requests and barring state courts from prohibiting disclosure of public information.

For his effort, the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation presented Wentworth with its James Madison Award.

Wentworth says he hopes citizens will find the posted FOI information helpful in their records requests. But he also hopes that the custodians of public records will read the signs as well.

Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., said the law “speaks well for Texas. … That should be very effective especially in offices that don't get many requests for records.”

Ed Sterling, legislative liaison for the Texas Press Association, also says the new posting law is a great idea but worries that citizens will find fewer records available in the future.

Specifically, he points to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which bars states from releasing personal driver's license information to the press and public.

Under the federal law, states can be penalized for releasing license data — including names, addresses, telephone and Social Security number and photographs — without the express consent of individual drivers.

In a related situation, several press groups in Texas, including the Texas Press Association, have challenged a similar state privacy bill restricting public access to driver's license information.

The press advocates successfully obtained an injunction against the law after its passage in 1997 but face a court hearing in Travis County Court on Jan. 18. They want the court to recognize the public's First Amendment right of access to the records.

“We weren't ever seeking driver's license information for background checks,” Sterling said in a telephone interview. “We use the information for stories on dangerous intersections and traffic reports. We've used it before to find out which (political) candidates have DUIs.

“We understand concerns about stalking, but these laws have some First Amendment problems,” he said.

Phillip Taylor free-lances for the First Amendment Center from Newport News, Va.