Free speech advocates concerned about Senate Bill 896 advancing in Texas Legislature

SB 896 sparks concerns over free speech rights

SAN ANTONIO – A lot of issues are getting highlighted in the state capitol this legislative session.

Senate Bill 896 is a controversial piece of legislation sparking concerns about free speech rights, the ability to hold businesses accountable, and freedom of expression for Texans.

Carrie Hurt, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau, said the bill “gives a much bigger voice to bullies in the state of Texas.”

Hurt is one of the many people who went to Austin to advocate against SB 896.

“It’s judicial harassment to try to shut you up,” said Laura Prather, Haynes and Boone’s First Amendment partner.

If passed, SB 896 and its companion bill would end vital protections under the anti-SLAPP law in Texas.

Laura Prather said the current anti-SLAPP law is vital for Texans.

“It’s one of the strongest First Amendment protections that Texas citizens have that they don’t realize that they have,” Prather said.

The law lets Texans give opinions or reviews without the fear of costly lawsuits from wealthy corporations.

“When a lawsuit is filed against someone for exercising their free speech rights, they can file a motion to dismiss. Under the Texas Citizens Participation Act. And that requires the court to look at the very beginning of the case as to whether or not there is merit in moving forward,” Prather said.

No merit, no harm to the Texas citizen.

“If there is no merit, the case is dismissed. And the citizen who should have never been sued to begin with gets their attorney’s fees back. They are made whole, and they go home,” Prather said.

“People who are the subject of those investigative reports often times sue because they don’t like that wrongdoing exposed. And if they are forced to fight in the trial court and the appellate court at the same time, it will become cost prohibitive to do investigative reporting in the state of Texas and then everyone loses,” Prather said.

With the potential consequences of Senate Bill 896 becoming increasingly evident, both Prather and Hurt call on Texans to take their concerns to their representatives.

“They need to contact their senators and have their senators vote against House Bill 3129. Tomorrow. It needs to be continued phone calls and emails to both their senators and to their representatives to vote against Senate Bill 896,” Prather said.

This is something both sides are getting behind, with right and left-leaning organizations going to the capital.

“It was groups from the right to life to the ACLU. So, all across the ideological spectrum, people understand that it is important to preserve free speech rights for Texas citizens,” Prather said.

All of this is on top of the unintended consequences of the already overburdened Texas court system.

In fact, Wallace Jefferson, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, even wrote a letter writing, which he stated the bill in part “would create a two-tier system in which parties, in certain instances, would be forced to litigate their cases simultaneously at the trial and appellate courts, which will cause significant perils for both litigants and courts.”

The fear is that – if it passes – this bill would hinder the ability to hold people, the government, and big business to account. Groups and regular Texans could be financially pressed into submission.

“The information’s factual only report on what information we do have. However, without the protection of the anti-SLAPP law, we could potentially be faced with making a decision not to report on companies,” Hurt said.

KSAT has continued to reach out to Congressman Jeff Leach’s office and Sen. Bryan Hughes’s offices via email and phone calls, trying to get interviews on why they authored and support the bills, but we have not yet heard back.

It’s important to note that Graham Media, KSAT’s parent company, along with several media groups has signed a letter against the bill.

To read Senate Bill 896, click here. You can read the companion bill here.

About the Author:

Max Massey is the GMSA weekend anchor and a general assignments reporter. Max has been live at some of the biggest national stories out of Texas in recent years, including the Sutherland Springs shooting, Hurricane Harvey and the manhunt for the Austin bomber. Outside of work, Max follows politics and sports, especially Penn State, his alma mater.