Monday, April 27, 2009

Two noteworthy hearings in the Lege today

The first is "Killer" Keller's impeachment inquiry. From Trailblazers via Grits:

Sharon Keller, the chief justice of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, could soon face impeachment proceedings - there's a resolution under review by the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee to consider impeachment for "gross negligence of duty ... with willful disregard for human life." Keller's court hears appeals in capitol murder cases, and she refused to keep her office open past 5 p.m. to accept an appeals filing hours before an execution in 2007. The committee hearing begins upon final adjournment of the House.

The second is our blogger bill. Vince has the details:

On Monday, the Texas 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.

If you are in Austin today, make your voice heard.

: Muse has a Twitter feed posted.

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