Proposed bills would limit protections for Texas journalists

Madalyn Marabella

If you are reading this, you probably value the news, which means you probably value freedom of speech. If that is the case, keep your eyes on two Texas House bills proposed by Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, that would weaken some of the legal protections afforded to journalists.

One of the bills, HB 3388, would weaken Texas’s shield law, which protects many reporters from having to reveal their sources. The bill would deny the shield law’s protection to journalists who have been involved in political campaign in the last five years. Even more shocking, journalists whose employers have worked for campaigns would also lose that right.

So, for example, if a board member of the Texas Student Media donated to a political campaign, student reporters would potentially lose the shield law’s protection. Those reporters may then feel less comfortable interviewing confidential sources, such as sexual assault victims.

Though King only aims to restrict people “who buy themselves an iPad and call themselves a journalist,” the proposed bill would also unconstitutionally limit freedom of speech, according to Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association.

More specifically, the bill would restrict political freedom of speech by targeting strongly politically affiliated news sources, such as Empower Texans. Members of the conservative, politically linked news organization believe that the bill targets their organization specifically. But HB 3388 would prevent many reporters who exercise their right to be politically involved, not just those at Empower Texans, from reporting freely.

The second bill, HB 3387, would empower public officials to more easily sue for libel and hurt news sources’ abilities to defend themselves. The legislation would effectively discourage critical pieces on public figures and violates reporters’ constitutional rights, as attorney Laura Prather explained to Courthouse News.

As a result, the bill could disempower journalists from serving their key societal purpose: monitoring abuses of power. Though reporters could still report on clear-cut scandals without fear of a libel suit, the gray areas of political controversy could go unreported.

If you are reading this, you probably value staying informed, which means you probably value accurate information. Unfortunately, accurate information is getting harder and harder to come by.

We live in a time when 62 percent of Americans get their news from social media — a time when buzzwords such as “fake news” and “alternative facts” float around social media, eroding the public’s confidence in journalism itself.

Accurate, un-biased reporting matters, which is why I understand why King wants to clamp down on false information from untrustworthy sources.

But if the government oversteps its bounds and tries to define what constitutes journalism and who deserves protected freedom of political speech, journalists will not feel comfortable tackling controversial or unpopular topics.

Marabella is a business honors, Plan II and Spanish freshman from Austin. She is a Columnist.