Free speech advocates oppose new bill in Texas Senate as deadline nears

Published: May. 17, 2023 at 10:07 PM CDT|Updated: May. 18, 2023 at 9:59 AM CDT
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AUSTIN, Texas (KCBD) - Free speech advocates warn legislation heard by a Texas Senate committee on Wednesday will make it easier for someone to sue you over what you say or write.

We reported last week on Senate Bill 896, which had passed out of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee. It would alter the 2011 Texas Citizens Participation Act, the state’s Anti-SLAPP law, which allows citizens to make accurate comments without the risk of being pulled into a lawsuit over things like business reviews or social media posts.

Advocates of the change believe it establishes a balance to free speech and the right to a jury trial, to reduce frivolous lawsuits. Among the organizations supporting SB 896 are the Texas Association of Business and Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

The bill’s author, Senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), has now included this language in a separate piece of legislation, House Bill 3129. The Senate Jurisprudence Committee reviewed HB 3129 Wednesday. The regular legislative session runs through May 29.

A wide range of groups are opposed to changing the Texas Citizens Participation Act, from the ACLU to National Right to Life and the National Taxpayers Union.

Laura Prather, a first amendment attorney, says most Texans could not afford the fight.

“The citizen that has spoken out, once they have to fight on two fronts, they’ll just stop talking,” Prather said last week. “Their voice will be chilled, the SLAPP and Anti-SLAPP will take effect. They will take down their post, they will apologize, they will do whatever they have to do to stop the bleeding, because they can’t afford to fight on two fronts.”

And it’s not just Texas families who could be affected by this change. It would have a damaging effect on journalists as well.

The new bill could put KCBD and other stations, newspapers or websites at risk of a lawsuit over reports on background checks, medical doctors awaiting review by the Texas Medical Board, arrests of child predators living near schools, or even questionable business practices.

The Texas Association of Broadcasters represents broadcast outlets from small town radio stations to major city TV. TAB President Oscar Rodriguez told us last week SB 896 would weaken free speech protections for all.

“That is what I characterize as the most important free speech protection that Texans don’t realize they have and are about to lose,” Rodriguez said.

Currently a judge has 60 days to throw out or approve cases considered under the law this bill would affect.

Under what is being considered, those 60 days could change to years and cost defendants hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, even if those cases are eventually thrown out.

Essentially every major newspaper and broadcaster group operating in Texas has stated its opposition, including Gray Television, the parent company of KCBD.

Groups in opposition to changing the Anti-SLAPP law include: American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., Americans for Prosperity-Texas, Associated Press, Axios Media Inc., Cable News Network, Inc., Committee to Protect Journalists, Cox Media Group, Dallas Morning News, Inc., Dow Jones & Company, Inc., Forbes Media LLC, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Fox Television Stations, LLC, Gannett Co., Inc., Graham Media Group Inc., Gray Media Group, Inc., Greenpeace USA, Hartman Newspapers, Hearst Corporation, Houston Chronicle, Institute for Free Speech, Laredo Morning Times, Las Vegas Review Journal, League of Women Voters, Motion Picture Association, Inc., National Coalition Against Censorship, National Newspaper Association, National Press Club Journalism Institute, National Press Photographers Association, National Right to Life, National Taxpayers Union, NBCUniversal Media, LLC, New York Times Company, Nexstar, Penguin Random House LLC, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pro Publica, Inc., Radio Television Digital News Association, Salem Media, San Antonio Express-News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc., Society of Professional Journalists, Texas Association of Broadcasters, TEGNA Inc., Texas Monthly, Texas Tribune, True Texas Project, The Washington Post, and Yelp!.