Texas Stamp


PD-0254-18 06/06/2018

1. “Did the court of appeals err in concluding that §551.143 did not violate the First Amendment?”

2. “Did the court of appeals err in finding that §551.143 was not void for vagueness?”

Doyal is a member of the Montgomery County Commissioners Court. He, a county commissioner, and a political consultant met with representatives of a local political action committee (“PAC”) about a proposed bond referendum. The result was an agreement by the PAC to support putting a road bond proposal on the commissioners’ special meeting agenda. That agenda was posted publicly, the meeting was held, and the voters passed the bond referendum that November. But Doyal was charged under Tex. Gov’t Code § 551.143 for conspiring to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). Under subsection (a), “A member or group of members of a governmental body commits an offense if the member or group of members knowingly conspires to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations in violation of this chapter.” He filed a motion to dismiss on First Amendment grounds, including failure of strict scrutiny for a content-based restriction, overbreadth, and vagueness. The trial court granted Doyal’s motion.

The court of appeals reversed. It rejected the application of strict scrutiny, holding that the statute targets the conduct of conspiring to circumvent TOMA, not the content of whatever is discussed. Applying rational basis review, it held that section 551.143 is reasonably related to the State’s legitimate interest in transparency in public proceedings. It also held that the statute gave fair notice to people of ordinary intelligence: although “conspire,” “circumvent,” and “secret” are not defined, each has a plain meaning. The court also held that the definitions of “deliberation” and “meeting,” which generally require a quorum, are drafted so as to accommodate deliberations at meetings without a quorum. As such, it concluded that Doyal failed to satisfy his burden to prove the statute is unconstitutional and vague.

Doyal raises numerous issues within two grounds. First, the statute prohibits speech, not conduct. This restriction is content-based because it prohibits speech by a whole class of speakers on an entire subject matter. As a result, strict scrutiny is appropriate and it was the State’s burden to prove the statute is constitutional. Doyal questions the compelling need for the statute and highlights the vast array of innocent discussions between and with government officials that are criminalized by its broad language. Second, Doyal argues the statute is unconstitutionally vague because it appears to cover so much speech that should not be prohibited. He points to public figures who testified at the pretrial hearing and expressed great confusion as to what is prohibited.

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