The mission of the American Phoenix Foundation is to promote ethical, innovative, and technologically driven journalism. For more information go to www.AmericanPhoenixFoundation.org
AUSTIN – The Texas Legislature Wednesday pushed through controversial legislation which repeals portions of the First Amendment, effectively ending citizen journalism in the Capitol. The new law is an attempt for legislators to shield themselves from scrutiny even in public areas of the Capitol building.
In a stunning show of bipartisanship, the Texas House rushed through SB 19 which includes provisions which some say severely curtail the first amendment rights of the press. Civil penalties for video reporting could now include $10,000 fines per occurrence.
“We knew legislators would try to close ranks and protect themselves,” said Joe Basel, CEO of the American Phoenix Foundation, “but we never thought they would go so far as to repeal the first amendment. I can’t believe my home state is criminalizing undercover journalism.”
Portions of SB 19 provide for civil penalties against reporters recording or filming legislators or lobbyists solely inside of the Texas State Capitol building, regardless of whether or not those legislators are in public places where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. It also provides for an unconstitutional prior restraint on media outlets trying to release such footage.
Sources within the Texas Legislature confirmed officials became visibly shaken when news broke earlier this month that American Phoenix Foundation volunteers and staff had been documenting the entire 2015 legislative session. The Phoenix Foundation has collected over 800 hours of undercover video with 16 staff, and has not yet disclosed its planned release date.
“It’s one thing for citizens to hear about corruption, misogyny and hypocrisy in government, it’s another thing when they see it with their own eyes,” said Basel. “Some of these guys are going to re-evaluate their careers in public service after these videos come out.”
Good day Austin:
I sat with Joe Basel last night in the House Gallery as the Texas House voted to render his behavior a violation of state law.
He had a front-row seat he had occupied for some seven hours waiting for his “moment of truth.”
From the Statesman’s Tim Eaton.
The hours-long debate over an ethics reform bill in the Texas House on Tuesday offered another chance to see the deep divisions among legislators.
Senate Bill 19, which was tentatively approved 96-48, provided the opportunity for the House’s most conservative members to bicker with Democrats and mainstream Republicans over financial disclosure, drug testing of political candidates and how to deal with the band of operatives who have been collecting video of lawmakers and lobbyists.
Cook also added a provision aimed at the American Phoenix Foundation — which claims to have collected 800 hours of footage of lawmakers and lobbyists behaving badly. Cook’s version of SB 19 now has a provision that says members of the Legislature or the lieutenant governor cannot be recorded at the Capitol without their consent.
“This is a dark and evil force that is upon us now,” Cook said.
Joe Basel, CEO of the foundation, and some of his employees watched the debate from the House gallery and snickered when lawmakers argued about the provision to outlaw taping in the Capitol without consent.
“If they’re going to vote to make me a criminal, I want to see the vote,” said Basel, who had claimed his front-row seat in the gallery at noon and was still there when the House debated his behavior that evening.
(note: I have been advised since originally posting First Reading that the measure approved last night does not create a criminal offense, but rather a civil cause of action against that conduct, so perhaps it is an overstatement – though perhaps within the bounds of poetic-legal license – for Basel to say the House had voted to “make me a criminal.”)
“Suddenly, after all these years,” Cook told his colleagues, “this Legislature suddenly has people running around chasing people. The worst part is we don’t know who’s funding them.”
Cook’s version of the ethics legislation would require that anyone recording a conversation with a legislator, either in the Capitol or in the legislator’s district office, have the permission of all the parties to the conversation. Basel’s crew have been taping surreptitiously.
Also, as Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, noted, in backing an amendment by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, to strip that language from the bill, it would retroactively censor the recordings that American Phoenix has made in violation of the new restriction by prohibiting the publication of tapes after the effective date of the bill even if the tapes were made before the bill was enacted.
“It’s Orwellian stuff,” Schaefer told me later.
They’re making me a criminal and I’ll win the constitutional suit and I probably won’t even have to hire a lawyer.
Every piece of media footage that’s ever been released of the Legislature, you guys are subject to lawsuit and jail from now on, unless you have everyone signed on. It’s kind of fascinating that the media is cheerleading this on
It’s not going to survive any constitutional challenge and I think it’s important that they know that l’ll just release their footage first and if they want to arrest me they can arrest me, I’m not going to slow down.
I’m fine. I’m still going to do what I was going to do. I’m still going to release all the footage as appropriate after legal review and vetting. If they want to make me a criminal that’s fine, I’ll turn myself in and raise a lot more money from jail.
There’s kind of an understanding, a respectful relationship between the press (and legislators), but I think that misses a lot. I think you guys have to do what you and have to do to have the access.
But we look at this differently. We think legislators and lobbyists should be wearing body cams and we’d all be better for it, including the media, because the footage we have very clearly shows the system is broken, that it’s stacked against the individual, it’s stacked against an open and free media and we’re going to show that.
Basel said most of their video was done beyond the reach of the new measure, even if it became law.
The majority of our footage is outside this building.
Basel said he doubts Cook’s language will survive a conference committee with the Senate.
It’s my understanding that the Senate would never vote for this bad, this unconstitutional a bill. I would be surprised if the Texas Senate or the governor was willing to support something this blatantly unconstitutional.
I think I was encouraged by the (Shaefer) amendment just now. The language is still in there, but there are a lot of people who think they have selfish reasons to make us criminals right now and stop the release of the footage that still voted to constitutionally uphold our rights.
Here was the vote on Schaefer’s amendment:
Bill: SB 19 – 2nd Reading Amendment 20 by Schaefer
Disclaimer:This vote has not been certified by the House Journal Clerk. It is provided for informational purposes only. Once the vote is certified, it will be recorded in the journal according to Rule 5 of the House Rules and made available on this web site.
RV# 1539 — Unofficial Totals: 66 Yeas, 74 Nays, 3 Present, not voting
Yeas – Anderson, C.; Anderson, R.; Ashby; Bell; Bohac; Bonnen, G.; Burns; Burrows; Canales; Craddick; Crownover; Cyrier; Dale; Davis, S.; Fallon; Fletcher; Flynn; Frank; Goldman; Gonzales; Guillen; Gutierrez; Huberty; Hughes; Keough; King, P.; King, S.; Klick; Koop; Krause; Landgraf; Larson; Laubenberg; Leach; Lozano; Metcalf; Meyer; Miles; Murphy; Murr; Paddie; Parker; Paul; Phelan; Price; Rinaldi; Rodriguez, E.; Sanford; Schaefer; Schofield; Shaheen; Simmons; Simpson; Smithee; Spitzer; Springer; Stickland; Thompson, E.; Tinderholt; Turner, E.S.; VanDeaver; White, J.; White, M.; Wray; Zedler; Zerwas
Nays – Allen; Alonzo; Alvarado; Anchia; Aycock; Bernal; Blanco; Bonnen, D.; Button; Clardy; Coleman; Collier; Cook; Darby; Davis, Y.; Deshotel; Dukes; Dutton; Elkins; Faircloth; Farias; Farrar; Frullo; Galindo; Geren; Giddings; González; Guerra; Harless; Hernandez; Herrero; Howard; Hunter; Isaac; Israel; Johnson; Kacal; King, K.; King, T.; Kuempel; Longoria; Lucio; Márquez; Martinez; Martinez Fischer; McClendon; Miller, D.; Miller, R.; Minjarez; Moody; Muñoz; Naishtat; Nevárez; Oliveira; Otto; Phillips; Pickett; Raney; Raymond; Reynolds; Riddle; Rodriguez, J.; Romero; Rose; Schubert; Sheffield; Smith; Thompson, S.; Turner, C.; Villalba; Vo; Walle; Workman; Wu
Present, not voting – Mr. Speaker; Sheets(C); Turner, S.
Absent – Burkett; Capriglione; Farney; Keffer; Morrison; Peña; Stephenson
Republicans were split on Schaefer – Greg Bonnen for, Dennis Bonnen against. A couple of Democrats voted “aye.”
“I don’t like what’s happened any more than anybody else, I don’t like it at all,” Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said during the debate. But he felt Cook’s language was an overreach, and not the way to deal with it.
Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, also voted for Schaefer’s amendment, explaining later:
There’s cameras everywhere. There’s cameras around every corner. If they want to drug test me then drug test me. I don’t have anything to hide from anybody.
You know, you join this circus at your own peri if you think you’re going to be able to hide and people are not going to be able to follow you. What’s the difference. While you’re in session you’ve got a paparazzi, and when you’re not , you’ve got your own press that will beat you up back home.
If they want to waste their team filming me on the couch watching Ancient Aliens, they can come share a burger with me.
But, Cook said later last night:
The public needs to be aware of what’s going on here. This is really bad behavior. I hope this doesn’t become the norm. Why would anyone want to come here and put up with this. It never happened before.
He gestured up toward the gallery where long lenses have been trained down on them for weeks.
They’re shooting us over and over and over again. It’s a sad business to be honest with you.
Half of the fun, half the object is to see if you can get to your office without somebody harassing you.
Does his remedy go too far?
Once again, It shouldn’t even be necessary should it.
You’ve got to send a message. You’ve got to send a message or then it’s going to be the norm.
And if you think about it, if every single member was facing this then, let me tell you, every one of them would be indignant about it. But because some of them are in on the game, it’s not a big deal to them. If they had to put up with it every single day, if the Senate had to put up with it every single day ….
Basel said he understands the sense of discomfort..
We know full well. We’ve had reporters at our private homes in the last couple of weeks because of this story, so we know full well that there’s a line there that’s uncomfortable.
This happened after my wife’s ACORN project. (Basel’s wife, Hannah Giles, did the ACORN sting with James O’Keefe). This happened after what happened with me in New Orleans. (Basel was arrested, along with O’Keefe and two others in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office, during another operation.) We became the story.
But, he said, this is only the beginning, in Texas and elsewhere.
We’re not going to stop We’re going to do this on a permanent basis and we’re going to do it better, harder, more prolific. This is the new normal for the Texas Legislature and a lot of legislatures around the country that we’re going to be starting (taping in).
Basel said the original idea was to target Congress.
I think Erica Grieder from Texas Monthly and maybe Brandon (Darby of Breitbart Texas) had heard me spitballing the idea. We had been talking about doing this federally for the longest time. And now, after this success, we’re going to be taking it to every Statehouse in the country, and federally.
If you look at all the journalistic awards for the last 100 years, this has obviously been done. Journalists who chose more politically correct targets to do hidden video will be getting major journalist awards this year.
Basel denies a political agenda.
I think it’s all fake perceived dichotomies. Its right vs. left, Republican-Democrat.
We didn’t let ourselves fall for those dichotomies.
This was a dragnet. This was every single member and every single lobbyist.
This had nothing to do with an agenda. We have no agenda.
We’re not asking for any bills. I guess technically we’re asking not to be made criminals this afternoon, but besides that, there’s nothing that we’re asking for. We’re asking for transparency, we’re asking for sunlight.
And until every lobbyist and every lawmaker wears a body camera, we’ll wear it for them.
But what about some of the big donors whose names have been revealed?
Read more: politics.blog.statesman.com