Q: A resident of our county, on her Facebook page, posted information supporting one candidate and casting innuendos on the other in a July runoff. The social media post is a string of allegations in the form of questions that could affect the election. What should we consider before we proceed with our coverage?
A: The stuff people post on social media! Don’t be surprised if parties on both sides of this issue expect to use your newspaper to further their points of view.
Now, imagine risks if you were to:
• Name or quote third parties in a news story without their knowledge, permission, verification;
• Go to press with a story absent a full set of facts on the issue; or
• Publish without getting county and possibly state election officials to weigh in, on the record.
A newspaper that strives for accuracy and a newspaper that doesn’t want to be slapped with a libel suit might contemplate those things before going to press. So, let’s say you choose not to publish anything about the social media post. You could treat each allegation in the post, substantiated or not, as valuable information for your files as you build a possible story. Make sure your reporter’s hat stays on and your editor is wide awake. Employ the usual Who-What-When-Where and Why/How method of reporting. Ask for on-the-record quotes from multiple sources, who in this case are public officials. After all of your toils, be ready to hold the story if you find unanswered questions, weaknesses to correct, fog to clarify.
Q: We received a subpoena from the sheriff’s office, requesting copies of news stories and audio/video recordings related to a child neglect story currently under investigation. The information is readily available via our website. I am inclined to simply email links to comply with the request. Is there anything else we should consider before making the requested information available?
A: For newspapers, a common practice in a situation like this is to call an attorney and comply with the subpoena. If you don’t have an attorney, you still need to comply.
Something to watch out for is a newsroom search without notification or warning. If that is a worry, you would do well to have an attorney’s advice. A law enforcement entity may not enter your office and confiscate your paper and photo files, computers, memory drives and chips, etc. Of course, you are free to give law enforcement what they want, but doing that can be tricky, especially without an attorney ready to act on your behalf. You might have unpublished photos, recordings and notes that you would never publish.
A subpoena or the threat of a subpoena may come from a law enforcement entity that wants to take advantage of the work you’ve already done. News organizations have long agreed that law enforcement should do their own gathering of information and not rely on a newspaper or broadcast news station to do their groundwork for them.
There’s more information concerning newsroom searches in David McHam’s “Law and the Media in Texas.” Here’s a link: https://www.texaspress.com/law-a-the-media-in-texas-foi-searches-shield-...
Q: I am getting stonewalled by the police department. All I want is a copy of an arrest report. The buzz is that it is a sensitive issue, one that would result in gossip and embarrassment. What does the police department have that allows them to withhold the arrest report?
A: You might find that the police department is exercising what newspapers refer to as the “law enforcement exception” in the Texas Public Information Act, Government Code Sec. 552.108. EXCEPTION: CERTAIN LAW ENFORCEMENT, CORRECTIONS, AND PROSECUTORIAL INFORMATION. It says that law enforcement may withhold information if the release of it would interfere with the detection, investigation or prosecution of crime.
But if you read to the end of 552.108, you will find paragraph (c) that says, “This section does not except from the requirements of Section 552.021 information that is basic information about an arrested person, an arrest, or a crime.”
Section 552.021, AVAILABILITY OF PUBLIC INFORMATION, says: “ Public information is available to the public at a minimum during the normal business hours of the governmental body.”
Now, if 552.108 and 552.021 seem contradictory to you, I’d say the same dog bit me. And I’d also say the reporterly thing to do is make the public information request even if you already know it’s going to be rejected, try to get at least one official on the record as to why the information won’t be released, and share copies of your public information request(s) with (and add them as carbon-copy addressees):
Justin Gordon, Open Records Division Chief, Office of the Attorney General, PO Box 12548, Austin, TX 78711
Kelley Shannon, Executive Director, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, 3001 North Lamar Blvd. Suite 302, Austin, TX 78705
Q: I just heard from the county elections administrator that they do not plan to publish a legal notice listing early voting dates, times and locations. He told me he only has to post it on their official website and at the courthouse. He said he is not required to publish it in the newspaper anymore. I was dismayed to hear that. Have the rules changed about legal notices such as these?
A: See Election Code Chapter 85 about early voting: https://statutes.capitol.texas.gov/Docs/EL/htm/EL.85.htm
That chapter requires the posting of early voting public notices at polling places, on the bulletin board used for posting notice of meetings of the commissioners court if the early voting clerk is the county clerk of a county that does not maintain an Internet website, or of the city governing body if the early voting clerk is the city secretary; or the county’s Internet website if the early voting clerk is the county clerk of a county that maintains an Internet website.
The change the administrator is referring to is no doubt the result of House Bill 933, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2019.
HB 933 amended early voting election notice requirements by adding a county’s internet web site as an additional place to post those notices. See the bill language at: https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/86R/billtext/pdf/HB00933F.pdf
Despite the fact that the law only requires postings, many counties, in respect to the fact that voters rely on their newspaper to access that type of information, have paid a qualified newspaper in the county to publish such notices. Thankfully, some counties understand the digital divide, meaning they know that not everyone can make it to the courthouse to read the notice and that many citizens:
• Do not have access to the internet;
• Do not know how to look up voting information on a computer;
• Do not have a computer, tablet or smartphone, or someone who can do it for them.
(Editor's Note: This is the last TPA Hotline column written by Membership Director Ed Sterling, who is retiring July 22.)