During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill – SB 1773 – requiring a joint committee of senators and state representatives to examine our state’s so-called ethics laws and determine whether they are fulfilling their purposes or in need of change.
This effort to comprehensively look at our speech regulations was a welcomed – albeit dangerous – development.
Welcomed because Texas’ laws regulating speech are in complete disarray since the Citizens United decision struck down our unconstitutional prohibition against independent political speech by groups and organizations. The Supreme Court gutted the Texas prohibition, and the speech regulators at the Texas Ethics Commission have since been attempting to force political speech back into a pre-Citizens United box.
Dangerous because many of the politicians with power over changing the laws do not seem to be particularly concerned with defending the rights of citizens to speak freely on the salient issues of the day. Indeed, what are campaign finance regulations but prohibitions on controversial speech critical of the political establishment? Do we really expect the establishment politicians who hold power to punish “illegal speech” that says nice things about them?
But whatever positive benefits SB 1773 might have provided citizens of this state have been squandered by inaction – first on the part of Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst – and then by the committee itself.
As we first reported, despite a legal requirement to appoint the ethics law review committee by November 1, 2013, Straus and Dewhurst failed to make appointments until August 22, 2014. Then, as we reported last month, the committee failed to meet for its first three months of existence.
Today the “Select Interim Committee to Study Ethics Laws” is meeting publicly for the first time with a report on its findings due in just 17 days on December 20th.
The law that created the review committee anticipated legislators having at least 14 months to explore the problems plaguing Texas speech regulations and to seek public testimony on those important issues. Despite this fact, the members of the committee – many whom have a record of being hostile to conservative speech – seem prepared to attempt to do that important job in just 17 days.
Or worse, they are prepared to defer to a report pre-written by some outside special interest.
One thing is certain, the committee is not interested in citizens’ thoughts on how their speech will be regulated; the committee posting informs that public testimony will be limited to no more than three minutes. That’s hardly the time required for citizens to recount their horror stories of abuse at the hands of the TEC.
It is unclear which members of the committee will even be in attendance. Sources have reported that some members of the committee were not even informed that the committee would be meeting. In fact, as of the time of publication of this article, the House website for the committee did not even display a notice for the meeting.
Whatever the case, the only responsible thing for the committee members to do is admit that they have failed to properly fulfill the purpose of SB 1773. They should not issue any report on December 20th because any such recommendations will be inherently illegitimate.