At a Texas Senate hearing on ethics laws, an official with the Texas Ethics Commission crumbled in the face of basic questions about Texans’ constitutional rights.

State Sen. Van Taylor (R–Plano) opened by asking TEC Executive Director Natalia Ashley if Americans have a right to free speech. His question was met with a long, awkward silence.

“I’m trying to start with the easy ones,” Taylor commented.

Thus began a tense five-minute exchange over the constitutional rights of Texans who end up in front of the TEC that left the senator seemingly flabbergasted by the agency director’s answers. “I have to say your prevarications are somewhat disconcerting,” Taylor told Ashley.

Ashley ultimately conceded the point, but not without defending her agency’s right to regulate speech under state campaign finance and lobby disclosure laws.

“Certainly everyone can agree that citizens have free speech,” Ashley finally responded. “A harder question is what speech requires disclosure under the laws adopted by the legislature.”

However, Ashley ultimately refused to agree that Americans have a right to anonymous speech or that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protected Texans who are under investigation by the TEC.

“I hope that we could agree that every American has a right to free speech,” admonished Taylor. “I hope that we could agree that every American has a right to the Fifth Amendment. I hope we could agree that every American has a right to the Bill of Rights.”

State statutes make clear that citizens brought before the TEC may not be compelled to give evidence or testimony that violates their constitutional right against self-incrimination. The current TEC commissioners, however, have adopted a policy of making a negative inference when a person invokes their Fifth Amendment rights.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.

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