On Monday, the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee will hold a public hearing on a bill which will give Texas bloggers and citizen journalists some much-needed protections under Texas law.
The committee will take public testimony on House Bill 4237 by State Rep. Aaron Pena (D-Edinburg).
This bill gives bloggers and citizen journalists the same protections that the mainstream media has when it comes to covering matters of "public concern," such as legislative proceedings, school board meetings, and the actions of state officials.
Under current law, commonly known as the "Privileged Matters Clause" of the Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code (Sec. 73.002), coverage by the mainstream media of matters of "public concern" such as those listed above cannot be used as grounds for a libel action.
Texas bloggers and citizen journalists, however, do not have similar protections. In theory, if a politician or officeholder wanted to cause a blog a great deal of problems, he or she could file a libel or slander lawsuit over writings discussing a matter of "public concern." It would then be up to the court system--after, no doubt, significant expense for the blogger or citizen journalist--to determine whether or not the "Privileged Matters Clause" applies to bloggers.
Texas bloggers have been fortunate in that no one has been forced to be a test case for this yet. Rep. Pena's bill ensures that no Texas blogger or citizen journalist ever will. It gives us the same protections as the mainstream media in this regard.
Texas bloggers and citizen journalists have pushed for "Privileged Matters" protection since 2006.
The fight for "Privileged Matters" protection was triggered after State Rep. Vicki Truitt (R-Keller) filed HB 129 in late 2006. Truitt's bill was a broadly-worded bill which would have essentially subjected every blog and citizen journalist in Texas to frivolous lawsuits.
Truitt said the bill was designed to allow people legal recourse if someone knowingly publishes information about them online that could lead to identity theft.
However, her bill was poorly drafted and opened bloggers and citizen journalists to frivolous lawsuits.
Truitt ultimately pulled the bill after Republican and Democratic bloggers (as well as party-neutral bloggers) raised outcry significant enough for the mainstream media to notice.
After Truitt announced she had screwed up on the bill, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorialized that bloggers and citizen journalists needed "Privileged Matters" protections, which I first wrote about a couple of days after Truitt's bill was filed:
The law specifically protects "a newspaper or other periodical" from being sued for libel when reporting on things that happen in a court of law, the proceedings of a government body or meetings dealing with public issues.
The protection also extends to "reasonable and fair comment on or criticism of an official act of a public official or other matter of public concern for general information."
One way to look at it is that the Star-Telegram is specifically protected by state law when it criticizes Truitt for her official acts, but Internet bloggers are not. That's not good.
We're both doing the same thing, and we both deserve the same protection for fair reporting and comment.
During the days before the 2007 session, with the controversy over the election for House Speaker and other concerns, it was difficult to find legislators willing to introduce legislation to give bloggers and citizen journalists "Privileged Matters" protections, and the issue was ultimately laid to rest after Truitt pulled her bill with the intent of trying again for the legislation this session.
This session, State Rep. Aaron Pena (D-Edinburg) was asked to carry the legislation and agreed to do so. Pena is himself a blogger and understands the technology and the legal issues at play for bloggers.
HISTORY OF THE PRIVILEGED MATTERS CLAUSE
The Privileged Matters Clause predates the 1984 substantive revision of the Civil Practices & Remedies Code which was accomplished with Senate Bill 797 in the 69th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature. Prior to that, the Privileged Matters Clause was codified at VACS 5432.
The concept of "Privileged Matters" for the media has existed in Texas Law since 1919 when the Privileged Matters Clause was amended to libel laws enacted in 1901 .
It has remained largely unchanged ever since.
The bill is set for a hearing on Monday before the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee of the Texas House. The hearing begins upon final adjournment. The bill is set the same day as the HCR on the impeachment of Sharon Keller, so expect the hearing to be packed for that legislation as well as numerous other bills.
Due to time constraints, those of us supporting the legislation have made the strategic decision to try and limit verbal testimony to three witnesses. However, we need as many people as possible who can to show up for the hearing and sign cards in favor of HB 4237. You may also submit written testimony to the committee.
If you will be unable to be present at the hearing and would like to submit written testimony, please forward a copy (in .doc or .rtf) of your statement to firstname.lastname@example.org with HB 4237 in the subject line, and we will make sure it gets to the Committee.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Vince Leibowitz of Capital Annex writes about a bill presently before the Texas House that would offer Texas political bloggers the same protections currently granted the mainstream media under Texas law. He's given us permission to copy and past him verbatim on this issue, so here you go: