Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fifth Circuit Upholds Constitutionality of Texas Open Meetings Act

On September 25, 2012, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings Act, ruling that criminal penalties in the Act do not violate the First Amendment.  Asgeirsson v. Abbott (September 25, 2012).
Texas municipal officials alleged that the Texas Open Meetings Act violates the First Amendment by imposing criminal penalties on politicians for holding public meetings behind closed doors.  The Act requires that most governmental meetings be open to the public.  Officials in violation of the Act face penalties of up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine.  Municipal officials from across Texas argued that the Act is overly broad and unconstitutionally targets politicians with the criminal penalty.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the district court decision, ruling that the Act does not limit the officials’ First Amendment rights, as it is a “content-neutral time, place, or manner restriction” on speech.  The three-judge panel evaluated the purposes of the Act, such as creating trust in government, increasing transparency, and ensuring that all members of a governing body may participate in the discussion of public business.  Ultimately, the Court found that these purposes legitimized the need for criminal penalties within the Act. The Court ruled that the criminal penalties serve to compel disclosure, not curtail free speech. 
Attorneys for the municipal officials vowed to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
This case is worth watching as the Illinois Open Meetings Act imposes similar penalties for violations of the Open Meetings Act.  In Illinois, a violation of the Act is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000.00 fine.
 Post Authored by Erin Baker, Ancel Glink

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