By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Oops, sorry. We were feeling all Olympian for a moment. Don't blame us, though; blame the Texas Legislature, which has decided to declare that Buzz—or rather the Dallas Observer—is a privileged member of a cool media club, unlike bothersome bloggers and you run-of-the-mill citizens.
How'd they do that? By passing HB 2564, a measure that requires you plebeians to cough up cash if you ask a government agency to see public records too often. Under the bill, if your pesky open records requests require an agency to spend more than 36 hours of staff time providing records in a fiscal year, the agency can bill you for the extra hours. (This is in addition to the usual copying fees.) Educators, elected officials and reporters for daily or weekly publications and licensed broadcasters are exempt. Consider it a sort of sunblock—SPF 36—for what are generally known as sunshine laws.
If you think that sounds bad, imagine how Allen Gwinn feels. He's been shelling out plenty of cash for copying government records and posting info on www.dallas.org Web site, keeping close watch on spending at Dallas Independent School District. Buzz, meanwhile, merely cracks wise once a week. We're exempt from the bill's limits. He isn't. That, Gwinn says, is "the sticky wicket. They're trying to define who is and who isn't press."
That's a First Amendment issue that likely will be brought up in court. Laws that have the effect of licensing the press don't generally sit well with judges, Gwinn says.
The bill's Senate sponsor, Senator Jeff Wentworth, says he does not believe the measure serves as a de facto license for the press; it merely recognizes that some of us make our living doing media, and draws a line between us and the rest of you.
Hey, he said it. We didn't.
HB 2564 was a response to complaints from some agencies that they were being inundated with requests clearly intended to harass. Gwinn says he understands the need to prevent "vexatious" requests from overtaxing agencies, but a law that burdens bloggers and everyone else with added fees is not the way to solve that problem.
"The way to get bloggers off your back is to not give them a reason to be on your back," he says.