Over the past few weeks Texans have been horrified by gruesome revelations concerning Planned Parenthood trafficking the body parts of aborted babies. Unfortunately, if some members of the Texas House had their way, investigative journalism would have become an endangered activity in the Lone Star State.
Thus far the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) has released three undercover videos in which administrators of the abortion organization discuss the illegal sale of organs harvested from aborted babies. In one of the videos, a Planned Parenthood executive jokes that she is hoping to make enough money selling unborn baby parts to buy a Lamborghini.
The exposés have sparked an outcry nationwide.
In the State of Texas, lawmakers are responding. Gov. Abbott ordered the Health and Human Services Commission to begin an investigation immediately. Attorney General Ken Paxton also announced an investigation by his office. State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R–Georgetown), chairman of the Texas Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, conducted a hearing on the scandal.
All of the investigations are undoubtedly positive steps, but they would not be happening if the undercover videos were not filmed and released by private citizens in the first place. Unfortunately, some Republican lawmakers flirted last session with passing laws that would have effectively banned undercover filmmaking.
For example, Senate Bill 1223 would have pushed Texas in the direction of California and ten other states that require all parties to consent to any audio recording.
The “Author’s Statement of Intent” attached to SB 1223 presented the measure as a way to protect privacy:
“In today’s digital age, there is an affinity for people to record daily events. Texans enjoy an expectation of privacy and S.B. 1223 will help to ensure their freedom of expression without concern of being recorded without knowledge or approval.”
None of the abortionists in the released videos, or presumably the ones in the unreleased tapes, agreed to go on tape. They never would have. If SB 1223 had passed and the CMP had recorded their conversations with Planned Parenthood in the Lone Star State after the bill’s effective date, it would have been the whistleblowers facing criminal penalties, not the organ-trafficking abortionists.While the Senate bill did not get a vote, the issue of “two-party consent” gained traction when State Rep. Byron Cook (R–Corsicana) hijacked Governor Abbott’s omnibus ethics bill.
Cook flipped the ethics package into a menagerie of protections and special privileges for lawmakers with the specific intent of undermining investigative journalism.
Cook and his allies, fearing potential revelations from undercover video collected by the American Phoenix Foundation (APF), sought to make it illegal to film legislators in the halls of the Capitol and sought to gag the release of any video APF had previously collected. One video snippet has since been released revealing Cook attempting to shove an APF cameraman.
Thankfully, Senate conservatives thwarted Cook’s unconstitutional bill, but Cook has been defiant. His efforts suggest some lawmakers may take another crack at a broader two-party consent law next session as a means of protecting themselves from scrutiny. Indeed, in the debate over Cook’s bill, conservatives focused their criticism more on the fact that the bill gave a special privilege to legislators and was retroactive. Implied in that focus was that a universal two-party consent law might be acceptable to the conservatives next session.
We spoke with the author of SB 1223, conservative Republican Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston), about the senate bill and the lessons he took from it this session.
He described himself as “tepidly” in support of the concept when he filed it, but said he intended his legislation to be limited only to telephone and radio communications. He explained that the bill lost traction when senators became aware that the measure might interfere with the ability of attorneys to conduct discovery on behalf of their clients.
“This has nothing to do with Planned Parenthood or the American Phoenix stuff, and wouldn’t have applied in those cases,” said Bettencourt. He told Texas Scorecard that the idea for the law came from his time in the radio business, where callers and interviewees are advised when they go on the air.
Indeed, Bettencourt would have had no way of knowing during the session what the CMP videos would later reveal, and because of the timing, the bill would have had no impact on the release of the videos even if it had passed.
“I’m glad Sen. Bettencourt did not intend for the proposed law to suppress undercover journalism,” said Tony McDonald, general counsel for Empower Texans. “It sounds like, regardless of their intent, the senators learned an important lesson on the chilling effect two-party consent laws can have on freedom of the press.”
McDonald added: “I trust that next session Sen. Bettencourt and other conservative legislators, knowing what they know now, will fight to protect the rights of citizen-journalists.”
The coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans in control of the Texas House, like Cook, seem committed to giving themselves special protections that undermine investigative journalism.
The nation was shocked several years ago when undercover videos exposed liberal activists at ACORN giving advice to journalists disguised as a pimp and prostitute on how to run a prostitution scheme with underage, immigrant girls. High-ranking Battleground Texas operatives, meanwhile, were caught on tape admitting to illegally harvesting voter registration information for the Wendy Davis campaign. And the Obamacare Navigator program in Texas was shut down after undercover video captured their workers telling applicants to commit tax fraud.
While two-party consent laws might be presented as measures designed to protect the privacy of citizens, the laws eliminate a powerful tool in the arsenal of liberty. They would criminalize the actions of the late Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes and prevent Chris Hanson from airing To Catch a Predator. More importantly, they stand in the way of citizens who work to expose the evil that occurs in society’s darkest corners.