Last month, the Texas state legislature announced that it was considering a move that would give government agencies and other public bodies the legal right to ignore Freedom of Information Act, or public records, requests if they came from outside the state. The restriction would apply to both businesses not based in Texas, as well as members of the public who simply weren’t citizens of the state.
Interestingly, this move is being spearheaded by Mike Schofield, who was a legal adviser for former governor Rick Perry for many years. Just a couple years ago, Perry’s office itself had been criticized by certain parties over alleged public records requests violations and often opted for the ‘silent treatment’ approach to critics of its handling of such requests.
Right now, there isn’t enough concrete support to know whether the bill will pass or not, but there is precedent for such legislation; currently, seven other states have laws on the books that allow them to ignore outside requests in a similar fashion. As one would expect, such laws were quickly challenged, but they have yet to be stricken down in any court appearance. Indeed, the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that a Virginia law with the same effect was not violating any other existing policy.
Following the ruling, other states began to ignore outside requests without formally passing their own laws. This behavior seems logical, considering that a court would be unlikely to find them guilty of anything, even if they weren’t explicitly protected by state law.
The proposed Texas law does have specific procedures, however, and doesn’t give organizations the ability to simply ignore requests right off the bat. The agency does have the ability to ask the requester to verify their Texas residency or business registration. If this proof could not be provided within 10 days, then the organization would be within its rights to ignore further communication with regard to that request.
The bill’s language leaves its own use optional, in part because Schofield didn’t intend the bill to be a way for organizations to ignore every request they field, but to simply help cut down on unnecessary requests where appropriate.
Justification for such laws largely comes from the idea that funding for the agencies having their information requested comes from the taxpayers of Texas, not from other states. There’s the additional issue that prominent states like Texas, which have many large, nationally known bodies operating, may get an unfair amount of external requests. Proponents of the bill warn that these external requests represent a drain on the time and resources of state agencies with no clear benefit to the people who are paying for their execution.