Under legislation passed late last night by Texas House Democrats and a minority of the GOP caucus, it would be unlawful for citizens or journalists to record conversations with lawmakers at the Capitol without the consent of the politicians. Of course, Texans living outside the Ivory Tower of Austin would continue to live under a different standard.
Expectations that Straus’ leadership team intended to pervert the Senate’s sweeping Ethics Reform legislation (SB19) were unfortunately validated during the House debate. However, State Affairs Chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) went even farther than predicted in poisoning an otherwise meritorious package. Included in the changes was the particularly nasty requirement of “dual-party” consent for anyone to record interactions with legislators.
SB19 unanimously passed the Senate and was lauded by Gov. Greg Abbott. As it should have, it aimed to make elected officials more accountable to Texans.
Cook, however, reacted with indignation and called the package “one of the most superficial efforts” he’d ever seen.
Intended to raise the ethical standard for lawmakers, SB19 served as nothing more than a Trojan Horse for Cook to infect with offensive attacks on the constitutional rights of Texans. In reaction to reports that journalists from the American Phoenix Foundation were secretly (and lawfully) taping interactions with lawmakers, Cook added the dual-consent provision, one that would only apply to lawmakers inside the Capitol.
Because other portions of Cook’s bill attack religious liberty, free speech, petition, and assembly, the additional assault on the freedom of the press gives Cook’s legislation the rare qualification as a complete attack on the entirety of the First Amendment.
The additional press regulation comes after Cook previously pushed to amend the House rules to restrict who can receive media credentials in the Capitol complex. That way, legislators can dictate who obtains “access” inside the Capitol by controlling who is considered “media.”
Apparently for Cook, simply controlling which media performs interviews wasn’t enough—now you must also ask his permission for every remark. (On Wednesday, May 27, the taping prohibition was weakened but made more convoluted in an amendment offered during the procedural third reading of the measure.)
Cook’s filming carve-out for Austin’s political class is reminiscent of one proposed by another Straus supporter, State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas). Villalba’s bill restricted the ability of Texans to film interactions with police officers. As illustrated by Tony McDonald, the bill was so foolishly drafted that it provided law-abiding CHL holders carrying a weapon even greater restrictions than citizens or journalists. After facing intense public scrutiny from nearly every ideological camp and nearly every media outlet in the nation, Villalba embarrassingly abandoned his own bill.
While Villalba pushed to protect the “safety of police” from citizens, journalists, gun owners and their video cameras, Cook is working to insulate politicians from pesky constituents and uninvited journalists.
Both should be ashamed.
Republicans in Texas all campaign as conservatives. Unfortunately, far too many politicians on both sides of the isle prioritize restricting the rights of Texans over limiting the power of government. As Villalba’s experience proved, and Cook demonstrated, the only lasting remedy for runaway politicians is public accountability.