As with any un-televised revolution, there are people who manage to blissfully sashay through life unaware, until a battering ram knocks down their front door and men with red scarves tied around their necks crawl in through the windows. That’s what happened to State Representative Vicki Truitt after the Republican lawmaker from Keller filed House Bill 129 on November 13, and was descended upon by Texas’s media revolutionaries, known as bloggers.
Truitt’s bill would have subjected bloggers and anyone else who writes material on the web to the same libel provisions as print and broadcast journalists. That part is no big deal: Texas courts have already held that websites — and bloggers — fall under those statutes.
The problem is that it would have subjected bloggers to the same penalties without the same protections afforded the mainstream media.
The media benefits from something called the “Privileged Matters” clause, found in Chapter 73 of the Civil Practices & Remedies Code. It protects journalists from being sued for libel if their coverage is a fair, true, and impartial account of a public proceeding or “reasonable and fair” commentary on a public official or matter of public concern.
Texas bloggers felt that if Truitt’s bill was going to codify the ability to sue a blogger, then it should protect them as well. That’s what caused bloggers across the state to sharpen their Bowie knives, but, as it turned out, the fight ended shortly after it got started. Truitt took notice of the internet donnybrook her bill had unleashed and decided to retrench, leaving HB 129 on the side of the road as a casualty of war. She promised to make some serious modifications to her bill after the 80th Legislature convenes in January.
Truitt told reporters that her bill had noble intentions: stopping web-based identity theft. What it ended up doing was highlighting a gulf of inequity that exists between traditional media and bloggers in an age where blogs are on the cutting edge of major breaking news stories (remember the sway they held over public opinion in the race between State Representative Carlos Uresti and the late State Senator Frank Madla?). Last week, the Forth Worth Star-Telegram said as much in an editorial.
“We’re both doing the same thing, and we both deserve the same protection for fair reporting and comment,” the newspaper noted, calling for the Texas Legislature to change state law “so that fair reporting and comment about the acts of public officials are protected, no matter the medium of their publication.”
While Truitt may have taken for granted the power of Texas bloggers, most in Texas politics are well aware of their ability to influence everything from candidate fundraising and elections to debate under the Dome.
Most legislators, in fact, pay careful attention to blogs as a barometer of public opinion and even for news tips. State Representative Aaron Peña says that on any given day the Legislature is in session, members are seen at their laptops, visiting blogs from the floor of the House. Peña, a Democrat from Edinburg, publishes his own widely read “A Capitol Blog.”
He also notes that the blogs — as happened with HB 129 — have the ability to influence legislation. His high regard for the blog is evident in the shield-law bill he recently filed to protect online reporters from disclosing confidential sources and reporter’s notes.
“If you want to be on the cutting edge of political currents or opinions, you keep abreast of what blogs and commenters are saying,” said Peña.
For Truitt, that’s a lesson learned. For bloggers, it is just one more battle in the fight for equality and equal protection.
Vince Leibowitz is the mind and muscle behind the blog Capitolannex.com.