The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed lower court rulings Tuesday that the Texas Open Meetings Act is constitutional in response to a lawsuit filed by city council members from Alpine and other municipalities.
"Today’s ruling is a great victory for democracy and the First Amendment," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement. "The decision further guarantees the public will continue to have access to information about how their government works. Making meetings accessible and allowing the public to see how decisions are made are the foundation of open government."
The case dates back to 2005, when then-members of Alpine City Council, Avinash Rangra and Katie Elms-Lawrence, were penalized under the Open Meetings Act for discussing city business in private emails. The act stipulates that most local and state level government meetings be held in public, and it makes violating the act a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $500 and one to six months in jail.
Rangra and Elms-Lawrence sued Abbott in 2006, claiming the act violated their First Amendment rights to free speech. The 5th Circuit Court dismissed the case in 2009, citing the fact that Rangra and Elms-Lawrence were no longer on city council and had no legal standing to sue. Council members from other municipalities including Pflugerville, Arlington and Sugar Land then took up the case. Fifteen council members are named in the current lawsuit.
The 5th Circuit court responded to the case Tuesday by affirming a Western Texas District Court's ruling that the act is a “content-neutral time, place, or manner restriction” on speech. The court’s decision states that since the act does not regulate the content of speech, it is not unconstitutional.
William McKamie, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said they will continue to pursue the case.
“Looking at the way the decision is written,” McKamie said, “we think we have a better-than-average chance of having a full-court review, and maybe having the Supreme Court look at it.”