Powerful state House Committee Chairman Byron Cook can no longer bar a conservative activist from recording during his State Affairs Committee hearings, Travis County Judge Lora Livingston ordered today.
The judge’s temporary injunction is a blow against Cook, a Republican from Corsicana, who has long tried to restrict recording to credentialed media.
But the ruling is limited. It only applies to Amy Hedtke — who sued Cook after she was forcibly removed from a hearing in March for continuing to record the event using Facebook Live — and to Cook, even though several other committee chairs follow a similar practice.
Cook’s general disapproval for unofficial acts of journalism is well-established. He has pushed bills to subject citizen journalists and activists to the financial reporting requirements imposed on politicians.
Hedtke’s suit named Cook, as well as the Sergeant at Arms of the Texas House of Representatives and the director of the Department of Public Safety.
She made headlines when she was arrested trying to record a debate on an abortion bill, in open disregard of a large sign Cook had posted instructing people not to record unless they had been officially recognized as media.
Hedtke explained to state troopers and others, state law explicitly allows citizens to record open meetings.
“A citizen in attendance may record all or any part of an open meeting of a governmental body,” the law states.
It did her little good. Two state troopers grabbed Hedtke by the arms and dragged her from the committee hearing, sending her off to jail, where she says she was strip searched twice and left naked for hours in view of others.
The position taken by Cook’s staff and arresting officers is that the rules of the House have precedence over that state law.
“The Texas Constitution gives the House and Senate authority to conduct its own proceedings in accordance with each body’s rules,” Cook said in a statement Tuesday.
Indeed, the state Constitution allows the House to set its own rules, but none of the formally adopted rules specifically disallow video recording.
“While the Texas Constitution gives the House the power to govern itself, it does not give the House the power to create new crimes to be enforced by DPS,” according to Hedtke’s attorneys.
The defendants, they write, “have alleged that the Texas Constitution gives the House the authority to manage its own proceedings, and its rules allow the chairs the power to ban non-credentialed citizen journalists.
“If that were the case, defendants should be able to reference some House Rule that was passed to support that assertion, but they have not done so, and cannot, because no such rule exists. Having enacted the Open Meeting Act, and having passed no contrary rule, no committee chairman may simply decide to ignore that law and violate it.”
In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, Hedtke asked the court to enjoin the House from prohibiting citizens from recording proceedings.