Laura Prather receives a standing ovation as she makes her way to the podium to accept the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas James Madison Award at the group's recent conference.
First Amendment attorney Laura Prather was awarded the 2018 James Madison Award by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas at the group’s annual conference in September.
The award honoring commitment to upholding the principles of the First Amendment and open government was presented during the John Henry Faulk Award Luncheon.
Prather, a board member and past president of the FOI Foundation, is a partner in the litigation section at Haynes and Boone, LLP in Austin. Her practice includes First Amendment, intellectual property and media/entertainment litigation and appeals. Texas Press Association is among her clients.
Fellow advocates for free speech and press rights have described Prather as “a fierce and effective defender” of the First Amendment and government transparency.
As an advocate at the Texas Legislature for free speech and open government, Prather was instrumental in the passage of the three most significant pieces of First Amendment legislation in recent history: the reporter’s privilege (shield law) the Texas Citizens Participation Act (anti-SLAPP act) and the Defamation Mitigation Act (outlining a process for corrections that, if followed, can greatly reduce liability).
She was also instrumental in drafting proposed legislation for the 2017 Texas Legislative Session that would have mitigated the effects of two Texas Supreme Court rulings that weakened Texas’ Public Information Act. In the 2015 Boeing case, the court ruled that businesses and governmental entities may withhold information about their contracts on grounds that releasing the information might put them at a competitive disadvantage in the future. In the Greater Houston Partnership case, also in 2015, the court ruled that a non-profit, which was paid by the City of Houston to perform economic development work, was not subject to the public information act. In the final days of the 2017 session, the legislation died without a vote.
Many of the topics covered in panel discussions at the FOIFT conference concerned instances when these two rulings were used by cities, counties, school districts and other government agencies to avoid releasing information about contracts and hiring of administrative personnel – keeping citizens from knowing how their tax dollars were spent.
As she accepted the Madison Award, Prather outlined the four issues FOIFT and its fellow Sunshine Coalition members will focus on in the 2019 session:
• Access to information about how taxpayer money is spent in the context of government contracts with private entities (the Boeing case);
• Access to information about nonprofit or quasi-public organizations that receive public money and perform traditional government functions (the Greater Houston Partnership case);
• Access to information regarding individuals’ dates of birth (Paxton V. City of Dallas, a court ruling that public citizens’ dates of birth are protected by common-law privacy); and
• Access to public information about government businesses that officials hold on private devices or channels, such as cell phones or personal email addresses.
“Madison was a deal maker who worked with all sides, and that’s what we will do to repair the Texas Public Information Act,” Prather said.
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the luncheon’s keynote speaker, discussed the Comptroller’s Office’s Texas Transparency Stars Program that recognizes local governments for their transparency efforts. Governmental entities are recognized for opening their books not only in their traditional finances but also in the areas of contracts and procurement, economic development, public pensions and debt obligations, and by providing clear and meaningful financial information by posting financial documents with summaries, visualizations, downloadable data and other information.
Hegar said he has supported transparency in government as comptroller and previously as a legislator. “Information is the most basic requirement for any free nation,” he said. “Democracy can’t survive and thrive unless citizens have the information they need to make informed decisions at the voting booth, and to hold those they elect accountable for their actions.”
The Comptroller’s website, www.comptroller.texas.gov, includes a transparency section where taxpayers may access information about state revenue, biennial revenue estimates, state spending, the state budget, sources of revenue, tax allocations, the state’s financial report and cash report. Also available in the transparency section are key economic indicators, data visualization, expenditures by county, sales tax allocations of cities and counties, local government links and information about local bond issues.
The FOIFT’s 2018 Bernard and Audre Rapoport State Conference also included panel discussions and programs featuring professionals in news media, academics and law.