This is exactly the kind of backlash I feared from the American Phoenix Foundation hidden camera investigation of legislators.
Jay Root of the Texas Tribune is reporting that a new draft of the state ethics bill includes a limitation on recording legislators in the Capitol.
Senate Bill 19 also takes aim at the people who secretly record or film at the state Capitol. Specifically, it would require people who record conversations with lawmakers inside the Capitol to gain the consent of all parties to the conversation or face a civil lawsuit.
This obviously is aimed at the APF workers who are confronting lawmakers with loaded questions while recording them with hidden cameras. However, the expectation is that if the APF has embarrassing video footage, it is from bars, restaurants and fundraisers.
Let me tell you why this is bad language that could become bad law.
- When Joe Pickett threw Jonathan Stickland out of the transportation committee over witness sign-ins on a bill to ban red light cameras, the House initially locked down the official video. The only available audio or video of the event was shot by a Stickland supporter from Arlington. This language could make that citizen liable in a lawsuit for recording lawmakers in a public hearing in a government owned building.
- Similarly, a citizen who confronts a lawmaker in the Capitol over a public policy dispute would not be able to record the lawmaker to get the lawmaker’s position on the record.
- The news media could end up only being able to record and reproduce words that the lawmakers agreed to have broadcast. Essentially, it would allow the media to be only shills for legislators and never critics. If I wanted to record a lawmaker in a surprise hallway interview about a $10,000 campaign donation he or she had taken from a lobbyist whose bill they were carrying, I’d have to first say, “May I record you.”
Even if there is a carve-out for the news media, this provision still would have a chilling effect on citizens and activists interacting with elected officials.
As creeped out as many lawmakers and lobbyists are by the APF questioners, a provision like this would turn an ethics bill into a self-protection act.