Texas Citizen Participation Act Takes Aim at Frivolous Lawsuits: Citizens, Journalists and Homeowners Testify in Support

28 03 2011

One of the things that I have been working on since finishing law school is supporting the effort to get Anti-SLAPP legislation passed in Texas.

On Monday the Texas House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence held a hearing on The Citizen Participation Act, a law designed to protect Texans from frivolous lawsuits that target their First Amendment rights. The Citizen Participation Act is a bi-partisan effort at aimed at supporting the rights of all Texans affected by frivolous SLAPP suits.

Every Texan, from a rural housewife, to an Austin taxicab driver, to the Better Business Bureau, is a potential target of a SLAPP suit. The Internet age has created a more permanent and searchable record of public participation as citizen participation in democracy grows through self-publishing, citizen journalism and other forms of speech. Unfortunately, abuses of the legal system, aimed at silencing these citizens, have also grown. These lawsuits, called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or “SLAPP” suits. Twenty-seven states and D.C. have laws similar to the Texas Citizen Participation Act.

The Act is comprised of House Bill 2973, sponsored by Chairman Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and Senate Bill 1565, co-sponsored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston and Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

Author Carla Main told the committee that after she wrote a book about eminent domain, a real estate developer filed half a dozen lawsuits, naming her, her publisher, the person who wrote a blurb on the back of the book and a Texas newspaper that wrote a review of the book as defendants. By including the newspaper, The Galveston County Daily News, in the suit, the developer prevented Main from removing the case to Federal Court “where we could have moved to dismiss the case immediately.”

The bill “creates a mechanism to get rid of meritless lawsuits at the outset of the proceeding and it provides for a means to help alleviate some of the burden on our court system,” said Laura Prather, a First Amendment attorney from Austin.

Shane Fitzgerald, Editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times told the committee how just last week the newspaper was threatened with a lawsuit for publishing a photo taken on a public beach during Spring Break. Refineries and other industries have threatened to sue newspapers over the publication of public records and safety reports from state agencies. Fitzgerald stated that the paper is threatened with such lawsuits several times a month. The effect of these suits is increased costs to the newspaper and fewer resources available for reporting.

Also testifying was Janet Ahmad, of San Antonio, and the president of Home Owners for Better Building. Ahmad shared details of how she was sued for racketeering by KB homes because she organized protests of the builder.





How to be a safe and lawful Bluebonnet-er

28 03 2010


Shooting bluebonnets is one of the classic spring pastimes for photographers in Texas. For those of us who don’t shoot flowers for a living (and who does, really) it is a great way to rediscover the joy of just taking pictures for an afternoon.

But as with all things, it is important to keep it safe. I was happy to find this article (thanks to Helen Montoya Henrichs) that clarifies a few things- namely, that it is not illegal to pick the bluebonnets (but it is totally uncool to drive your car over them). Oh, yeah, and, no trespassing.

http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/director_staff/public_information/pr032602.htm





Constitutionality of Strip Club “Pole Tax”

26 03 2010

If you are a First Amendment fan, you might enjoy watching the oral arguments from a case heard by the Supreme Court of Texas. They are available via video feed here.

The issue: is the imposition of a tax on strip clubs (specifically a $5 tax for each person at a nude dancing club where alcohol is served), a violation of the First Amendment rights of the clubs?

There is also an article on the case here.

Why is this a First Amendment and issue for strip clubs? Because of the dancing.





Photography in National Parks- a local look

7 07 2008

A senior portrait at San Jose Mission in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Alicia Wagner Calzada

With my attention focused on the national discussion of photography permits in the national parks, I thought I would check on my local national park. I have done photo shoots at the San Jose Mission National Park many times, for both editorial shoots and for individual clients.

What I found was proof that there are major contradictions out there and a definite need for the national system to give more specific recommendations.

Here is what is listed at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park website (new policy effective in 2006). Instead of having one straightforward policy, there are four different policies stated that contradict each other and might each be interpreted by a park ranger in their own way:

First, on the FAQs page:

“I want to use the missions as backdrops in my family and wedding photographs. What do I need to know?

  • “If you or a family member is taking pictures, there is nothing special you need to do… If you are using a professional or commercial photographer, you or the photographer must apply for a permit at least 14 days in advance. There will be a fee involved.”

Ummm…. Aaack!!!

But then, clicking on the more information button and the “commercial filming” link:

“Commercial filming includes capturing a moving image on film and video as well as sound recordings.

Still photographers require a permit when

  1. the activity takes place at location(s) where or when members of the public are generally not allowed; or
  2. the activity uses model(s), sets(s), or prop(s) that are not a part of the location’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities; or
  3. Park would incur additional administrative costs to monitor the activity.”

(this is more in line with what we at the NPPA have been saying. Any permit should be based on the level of interference, not what the photographer will later do with the image.)

But if you read further on down the same page, you see this lovely chart …..

Commercial Filming/Videos Still Photography
1 – 2 people, camera & tripod only $0/day
1 – 10 people $150/day 1 – 10 people $50/day
11 – 30 people $250/day 11 – 30 people $150/day
31 – 49 people $500/day Over 30 people $250/day
Over 50 people $750/day

If I was a ranger, I would see the column on the right and assume that a photographer with 1-10 people was responsible for paying $50.

Finally, further down the page, the link to Appendix 13,exh.1: still photography pulls up a document that says:
“The NPS will not require a permit for photographers, commercial or non-commercial, to go anywhere or to do anything that members of the public are generally allowed to go or do without a permit. This is true whether or not the photographer uses tripods, strobe lights, or interchangeable lenses. Coverage of breaking news never requires a permit but is subject to restrictions and conditions necessary to protect park resources, public health and safety, and to prevent impairment or derogation of park resources, values or purposes.”

“A permit is required if the superintendent determines there is a potential of a photography project’s harming or having an impact on the park’s natural, cultural or recreational resources, or creating unacceptable health or safety risks, or disrupting visitor use and enjoyment. A permit is also required pursuant to 36 CFR 5.5(b) for persons taking photographs of vehicles, other articles of commerce or involves the use of a model, set or prop for the purpose of commercial advertising.”

This is a fine policy. I just wish I got there sooner.

-A