The Texas Open Meetings Act became law in 1967. Its purpose is to prevent a quorum of members of any governmental body from deliberating in secret.
In 2009, officials from 15 cities challenged the law. They said it kept them from having informal discussions about whatever was on a city meeting agenda. The officials claimed that violated their First Amendment rights. But constitutional law professor Peter Linzer at the University of Houston says their argument didn’t hold up in trial or appeals courts.
“They certainly have First Amendment rights. But the right to keep it secret is not part of that. It might be for you and me. If you and I want to talk, people may not have a right to know what we’re saying. But if I’m a legislator, it’s different.”
Linzer says, technically, this law forbids casual behind-the-scenes policy chats among elected officials over a drink or a meal.
“While it will be very hard to enforce that, it does have the effect that they can’t decide all the critical stuff off-stage, and then go in and have a formal meeting where they don’t say anything important — where they script it in advance.”
Linzer says the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear that case isn’t necessarily an endorsement of the state’s open meetings law. But since it has survived the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, future challenges on constitutional grounds will be more difficult.