Who’d have thought a tea party freshman who dropped out of high school would become a media sensation? Representative Jonathan Stickland, a Republican from Bedford—who later got his GED—wasn’t even considering a political career until he received a late-night email from the president of his local tea party group, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
Expectations were low. “Experience counts,” said the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s editorial board in May 2012, in endorsing his opponent, a former city councilman. Stickland nevertheless won the primary, with about sixty percent of the vote (and the general, with about eighty percent—the district is one of those where most of the competition is in the Republican primary). And he didn’t win many fans during the regular session; one reader poll put him among the “worst” legislators of the session. Still, Stickland received positive national attention for his amendment to House Bill 2268, which relates to email privacy in the state.
The amendment, which started as a bill Stickland introduced but went nowhere (as is not uncommon in the Texas lege) closes a loophole in the 1986 Electronics Communication Privacy Act that states law enforcement officers can view opened email without a warrant and can view unopened email six months after it was sent without a warrant. Now that Governor Rick Perry has signed the bill into law, Texas cops and investigators need to file search warrants in order to access all emails, regardless of age.
The law, of course, only applies in the state’s boundaries. The federal government can still snoop on Texans; that much is clear from recent reporting about the National Security Administration’s Prism program, and the federal government’s requests for data from Silicon Valley giants such as Google, Facebook, and Apple. (For more history on this, see this 2004 report from the Washington Post.)
An update of America’s email privacy laws—again, keep in mind that the law in question was enacted 25 years ago, when Stickland was three and email was barely older than that—seems logical enough. The broadest version of the debate is whether American citizens have a constitutional right to privacy, because that right is not explicitly given in the Constitution. Laws and court rulings have established precedents, though, and with every new leap forward in technology, there are new questions about how the logic should be extended. The argument against privacy on telephones when they first appeared was that people didn’t have to use them. That argument, of course, didn’t succeed. And now, with people’s lives revolving more and more around smart phones and access to the Internet, does it make sense to apply old standards to new technology?
In May, four United States congressmen introduced two bills on the subject of email privacy. The bills are apparently dead in the water, though. Looked at from a wide angle, then, Stickland’s amendment is a Band-Aid on a gaping chest wound. However, as tech policy analysts have noted, the amendment, which has made Texas the first state to tackle the subject, has the potential to set a new standard for the rest of the country.
Not bad for a freshman, even if Stickland did subvert the Lege’s longstanding tradition that freshmen should be seen and not heard. So, just how did he become the face of a state bill with national recognition? Last month, he sat down with Texas Monthly to explain. This interview has been edited and abridged for clarity.
Texas Monthly: How did this amendment get started?
Jonathan Stickland: It was a bill that we originally filed. We filed a lot of little bills that were niches–clean-up language and stuff like that. We knew we weren’t going to get any landmark legislation through, so we were trying to find a little niche. There was one report that came out, at the end of last year, that said something about this. It was some email thing, but it was on the federal level. That’s how we found out and started looking into it. And we were like, “Hmm, this is strange.”
So it was on our wish list, and then a Ron Paul-er came in here and said, Hey, have you heard about this? And we kind of commissioned him to start looking into it, and then we came up with the bill and filed it.
TM: Do you think we have a constitutional right to privacy?
JS: I think we do. I think the 4th Amendment goes to that. To me the first and most proper role of government is to ensure our rights, and our right to privacy is included in that as well, or should be. That comes before roads. That comes before schools. That comes before anything else. If government can’t protect our rights, then nothing else matters.
TM: What would you say to the argument that if you want your privacy protected, just don’t use email? You sign up willingly.
JS:Well, I agree from a business standpoint that should be the case, so if I sign up to use Google and Google puts it in their terms of agreement, “Hey, we might sell your stuff or we might go through it” or whatever else—you knowingly entered into that contract. But when you’re dealing with a government agency—I never signed a piece of paper that said they could do whatever they want. I think there is definitely a distinction. When you enter into a business agreement or a contract with somebody, you can deny that or not. But if I can’t walk away from this deal that we have, or this situation, then that’s completely different to me. If you let people opt out of government then that might be the answer [laughs].
TM: Why did you think your amendment or your bill was necessary? Because of Prism?
JS: We started this process beforehand. That only amplified it. In fact, Frullo [John Frullo, a Republican representative from Lubbock] was great to work with in the end, but at first it was: “We cannot do this. The senator that I’m carrying it for does not want it. We need a clean bill, otherwise it’s not going to pass.”
We fought tooth and nail for it. And I started working the floor. I remember that day he was literally working the floor, telling people, “If he does this, it’s going to kill the whole bill.”
Well, I liked his original bill. It was OK. I wasn’t super-excited about it, but I would have voted “yes” for that bill. And I told him that—“I’m not trying to kill your bill. I’m not trying to put the poison pill in here. I really do think that the people will like this and this is a good amendment.” I worked for ten hours on the floor, and he was literally on the opposite side going behind me and fighting against. We were looking at each other and working it.
And finally I said, “Look, I think the people are behind me on this when it’s explained. And I’m going to go this back mike and you’re going to have to tell people in front of the whole state of Texas that you think it’s OK for this, and, John, that’s not a good idea.” We were kind of playing chicken. So we started the exchange, and about five minutes into it he said, “Alright, I’ve decided to take it.” Huge victory.
TM: Was he objecting to it in theory?
JS: I think he was objecting because it was–because of me. Truthfully. He was worried that if Stickland got a bill amendment onto the bill that leadership would have said, “Oh, that guy,” whatever the case may be.
And I understood that. Again, I wasn’t trying to torpedo it, so I covered my bases. I played nice with everyone for about 24 hours, didn’t do anything crazy, you know, whatnot. It ended up working out really well for us. At that point we started talking about it in public and trying to generate some buzz, and he started to feel like, hmm, maybe this is a good idea. Frullo actually ended up being great to work with after we got past that initial game of chicken. He’s got to be pleased now because this has blown up all over, especially the Internet. I mean, literally, we’ve been contacted by other states on this–”What’s going on? How did you do this?” Even other legislators, they didn’t know that this was the case in their own state.
TM: How about law enforcement—did they object to the measure itself?
JS: Law enforcement was all over us the whole time. One of the first things I did was join up on what we call the “Vampire Cop” bill with (Rep.) Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), which was an amazing alliance. We found that bill and then I went to him and said, “This is awesome. Can I please get on it?” And he was like, “I’ve been filing this forever, and you’re the first Republican that has ever . . . ”
TM: The vampire cop bill?
JS: It required anybody who takes blood to be a registered phlebotomist, so the cops can’t be out there sucking blood. So Sly calls me. [Stickland points to a picture of him and Turner on his bookshelf.] He’s probably one of my closest friends, to be honest with you. He calls me the night before and he’s like, “We got a hearing in approps that I cannot miss. Do you want to lay out this vampire cop bill before committee, or do you want us to reschedule?”
I was like, “Let’s do it.” I walk in and there’s 15 cameras and every cop from the state of Texas. And I’m like, what in the hell did we just do? Again, this is one of the first things I did, so I was just completely naïve to the process. We had the vampire cop bill. We had my email bill. We had the hidden camera bill that we were pushing. Also, I filed a resolution to get rid of the metal detectors here at the capitol.
So the cops were just like, “This guy? This conservative Republican?” They’ve never dealt with it before. They never had to fight a Republican before. They’re always fighting Harold Dutton [a Democratic representative from Houston] on marijuana or whatever.
TM: In the context of PRISM and the collection of citizens’ metadata, do you wish you had strengthened the bill?
JS: I don’t know how we could have, from a state standpoint. It’s as strong as we could have possibly made it in the state of Texas with what we have control over. It’s going to be up to the AG and everyone else to see if they want to have the 10th Amendment showdown on this issue. I think we should. I think we’ll win.
TM: As a freshman, how’d you learn to play the game in the legislature?
JS: I went with my gut on a lot of things, to be honest with you, and I also modeled it after people who I felt were effective. For different reasons, I respect the heck out of TMF [Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio], to be honest with you. Those are actually the guys who are moving the House.
One of the things that I noticed very quickly in this whole process—and this was a major disappointment, but also, once I thought through it, where I became excited–was that there’s only about fifteen to thirty people, depending on the issue, who actually have opinions here. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but when I look around the floor, most people are following a certain person, or they’re doing what a certain third-party group does, or, you know, whatever they’re told.
I sat next to Tom Craddick on the floor, and had a relationship with him from before, from the oil and gas industry. One of the things he told me was, “The difference between the good legislators and the bad ones is the good ones get back up quicker.” He said, “There’s too much talent, there’s too many personalities, there’s too much at play for one person to win all the time. But the good ones get up quicker and get back in the fight.”
So I said, “That’s what I’m going to do.” Then I looked around. That’s what I saw all the effective people doing. I saw TMF get slaughtered, numerous times, and an hour later be back up there with as much passion and fight in him. And it didn’t matter what you did to him, he got right back up. And I think I did that too.
TM: Where does this passion to be a mover and a shaker and not a follower come from?
JS: I guess I’m naturally against the grain to begin with. I think it started back with dropping out of high school and saying, “I don’t need your piece of paper. I’m going to go make money myself.” I’ve always kind of had that attitude.
But if you would have asked me before the session, “Does Jonathan become this leader of the tea party group?” I would have said no. I didn’t really seek to do that, but then you get here and there’s nobody doing it. Where was the conservative leadership? We did not get it from the senior members of the house. We didn’t really get it from the senate either, if you ask me. So it’s kind of like, “Well, y’all aren’t going to fight on this? Fine. I’ll do it.”
I think there’s people who have better skills and are more qualified—and I’ve had this conversation with numerous people who have been here for a while. It’s like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m in a room, I’m blindfolded, but I got this bat, and if nobody else is going to show me where to start swinging, then I’m just going to start swinging in a circle. And learn by default.”
TM: Did that backfire on you amongst your colleagues?
JS: It did at first. I remember on the PUC Sunset bill, I voted against the whole thing because we didn’t pass the cease-and-desist amendment. I think there were five of us who voted against it. Well, I went straight to Facebook and said, “Proud to be one of five people who voted against it based on principle,” and explained it. I came back the next day to a bunch of people who were like, “You’re throwing us under the bus. You’re trying to be the hero. Dah-dah-dah-dah.” And it’s like, “Look, I’m not, but this is what my people, I feel, want, and this is what I was sent here to do. And if it’s at your expense, then I’m sorry, but you need to make that decision, whether you need to get on board or not.”
And there was some backlash, but I wasn’t the only one with that attitude. There was kind of an inner fight in the tea party caucus. This group over here who said, “Let’s try and work with them and maybe compromise on some stuff and see where we can get.” And then the other group who said, “We’re going to stand on principle and force them.” My whole plan this entire session was stall, stall, stall, stall, stall. We’re not going to get the budget or anything else the way we want it in this regular session so let’s take it as far as we can to give ourselves a chance. Maybe Governor Perry will bail us out and maybe the people will stop this from happening. If you look at it from that standpoint, that’s exactly what we did.
TM: How do you think this attention will play into your role in the next session?
JS: I think it plays huge because this one is different than your main Tea Party party-line issue. I think people are finally starting to realize maybe there’s some depth here. This isn’t just a crazy guy who’s throwing red meat to get re-elected or doing it for a show. This is a lot deeper than that, and I think it’s caused people—maybe like yourself—to say, “What else is going on here?”
That’s one of the reasons the Tea Party mantle frustrates me. You get categorized as this person who just wants to say, “No, no, no, no, no,” and fight everything. I’m here to talk about solutions. I really think that I’ve got conservative, limited-government solutions to the problem.
TM: You said people didn’t expect this from you. Does your district expect this from you? How do you make this case to other Republicans?
JS: The things we were worried about, when we first started my race, were my age, my GED, and my support for Ron Paul. We couldn’t run from it. I had made donations to him and whatnot. That was our concern. So we just met every single one of those head-on. If you go to my website, it will say he’s got his GED. We owned it. I went around and talked about liberty as much as I possibly could in the Republican primary. That was the biggest complaint. Yeah, I think they did expect it. Some of them might have been a little fearful of what that might have meant. Any of my hardcore supporters or donors, they knew exactly where I was coming from.
There’s a retired police officer who’s running against me in the primary, from what we’ve been told. [But] I’m pro-cop. I’m OK with them going through emails. I just believe there’s a process and you got to go get a warrant. I believe in our justice system, and I believe there is a proper process to this that needs to be respected.