What can I do if our school board members won’t answer questions?

Question:  We have a problem with access to school board members.  By policy, they don’t talk with the press.  They refer all interview requests to the superintendent’s office.  During board meetings, they have set aside a time for public comment, but they don’t allow questions even then.  You can say whatever you want, but you can’t query the board.  They do not violate the Texas Public Information law in their meetings, but there’s no opportunity to find out what they are thinking about the votes they are taking.  How can we get them to take questions from us or give us some interview time?

Answer:This is an interesting situation without an easy answer.

First, let me say that it is typical of most boards and commissions not to respond during public comment periods. The public is generally given a specific time to voice concerns, and most officials do not respond, or get into a debate, during this period. Typically the board president or leader will thank the speaker and sometimes they will indicate they are referring it to a staff member for consideration. So I wouldn't worry about that too much.

But having elected officials who refuse to comment on any public issue, and who refer those questions to someone who works for them, is very odd. As a journalist, you can't make them talk to you, but you can make it obvious to the general public that the board is refusing to discuss important issues. Is there a particular issue right now that you are writing about? I'd suggest you do an entire story on the fact that the elected officials refuse to discuss matters of interest to the community. You might also submit an open records request for any emails exchanged among the board and the staff on that topic. That would be one way to get their attention.

Are there any teacher groups or citizen groups that are complaining about the lack of communication from the board? Those would be important voices to include in the story, and would drive home for readers that this is not about a journalist getting his feelings hurt but a failure to communicate about matters of importance to the general public.

I would also recommend that every time you have a story, you should seek out comments and include a line in the story that the individual board members would not comment.

Good luck.


Can I get a copy of the council packet at a city council meeting?

The short answer is yes, you should be able to get a copy of the council packet. Council packets are routinely handed out to reporters – just ask any of the big cities such as Fort Worth.

The long answer is that these documents are subject to the open records act like any other document. Therefore, if they are providing council members with copies of legal opinions or details of real estate transactions, they may be able to withhold those items. A request for a zoning change, however, would not fall under the real estate transaction – the types of real estate transactions exempted under the open records act are generally the sale or purchase of real estate. A request for a zoning change, and specifications of that request, would be public.

If the city is refusing to give you a copy of the council packet, make a formal written request for the documents. They will probably seek an attorney general's opinion. You may have to make requests every week until you get them accustomed to releasing these details to you. If you don't want them to charge you for copies, ask for access to read the packet. You would only have to pay for the pages you actually want.


What to do when your judge issues a gag order

The capital murder trial had been under way three and a half days when the gag order arrived, handed out after lunch by uniformed bailiffs to the media and other spectators seated in the courtroom.

Much of it was typical of what you’d find in a gag order issued during a tense trial:

  • No media interviews with the witnesses, attorneys, prosecutors or court personnel
  • No audio or visual recording equipment allowed in the courtroom
  • No photographing of jurors
  • No communication with any member of the jury
  • No computers in the courtroom without prior approval of the judge

But the gag order issued on Jan. 6 by Visiting Judge Elizabeth Berry in Tarrant County Criminal District Court #4 did not stop there.

Berry ordered that media interviews could only be done in the courthouse lobby or outside the building. And nothing, the order stated, should be disseminated by the media unless it had occured in open court, presented in evidence or in argument with the jury present.

In other words, the media was being told they couldn’t report anything that happened in court outside the jury’s presence.

There were to be no blogs about court rulings on evidence. No testimony given without the jury to help the judge determine whether something should be admitted into evidence. No reporting even on the dressing-down the judge had given prosecutors and defense attorneys for their ongoing sniping.

Violation of the order could result in automatic expulsion from the courtroom or contempt of court, which carries a fine of up to $500 or six months in jail.

I stepped outside and called my editors at the Star-Telegram. It was time to get the lawyers involved.



Gag orders are not uncommon in high-profile cases such as the recent capital murder case against Kwame Rockwell, accused of killing two men — including a Mrs. Baird’s deliveryman — during a 2010 convenience store robbery.

Death penalty cases get intense scrutiny during the appeals process, and trial publicity can adversely affect the justice system if the jury panel becomes aware of the hooplah.

Most defense lawyers and prosecutors avoid discussing an ongoing case anyway, and in this case, the family members of the victims had already indicated to the Star-Telegram that they didn’t want to talk until after the trial.

But this gag order crossed the line. By prohibiting reporters from reporting on actions that occurred in open court, but outside the jury’s presence, the court had initiated a censorship policy known as prior restraint — telling the media that it cannot print something that occurs in a public forum.

Prior restraint was at the heart of the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, when the Nixon administration tried to stop The New York Times and Washington Post from publishing portions of top-secret documents related to the Vietnam War.  

In a later case in Nebraska in 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a gag order that had imposed prior restraint on the media, saying such censorship was a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.



So what should you do if you’re hit with such a gag order? Take the lead from Star-Telegram attorney Tom Williams of Fort Worth, a noted First Amendment lawyer.

  1. Try to reason with the judge. Williams arrived in court within a few hours of the order being issued to talk with the judge about the decision. The Star-Telegram agreed immediately not to approach witnesses or attorneys for comment, but asked for permission to ask questions about routine information, such as the spelling of a witness’ name or confirmation of a date.
  2. Be polite. Make the judge aware that you are not trying to interfere with the justice system, and that you are willing to cooperate fully with her efforts to protect witnesses and court officials.
  3. Don’t back down on the big stuff. Judge Berry agreed to soften the order somewhat but initially refused to back down on the prior restraint order. Williams then indicated he would like a hearing on that issue, and it was scheduled for the following Monday. Before the hearing could begin, however, Berry had issued a new order revising the prior restraint requirement.

The key point to remember is this: Open court is a public forum, and no one can control reporting of what happens in open court.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers Reporting

When local agencies don’t notify us of news releases and or a press conference, more than once, what is the best course of action?

Unfortunately, there is no legal requirement that notices and press releases be distributed evenly. If a quorum of officials is present, a public notice must be posted at the appropriate place but there is no posting requirement for a press conference. I’d recommend that your first course of action would be to sit down with the official or officials in charge and discuss the issues. Explain that you want to be fair about your coverage, and you’re disturbed that they are trying to exclude your readers from the information that they believe is important. Make them realize this is not about you but about members of the public who rely on you for information. Sometimes that will give them the opportunity to rant and rave at you, and then you can all move forward.

As we all know, however, rational arguments do not always work. That leaves the old-fashionioned reporting approach:

  • Are there public officials who are more sympathetic to you who could alert you to these events? Cultivate those people, and make sure you protect their identities, or they likely will be cut off, too.
  • If you believe a press release has been issued, make an open records request for it. If they delay in giving it to you, file a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s office. (Information that has already been released publicly is considered public under the law and can’t be withheld, generally.)
  • Make an effort to show up regularly at every event and activity you hear about. I realize this takes a lot of staff time, but perhaps you could do this on a short-term basis until basic courtesies have been re-established.
  • Do they have a working Web site? Constant checks to the Web site can also alert you to activities.

Rebuilding lines of communication can be very difficult. Quite honestly, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it except to continue covering issues the way you believe they should be covered. You can also point out in your coverage that officials have refused to provide information, or refused to discuss issues. But that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to cover the things that are important in your community.


Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

Do I have to tell government officials why I want information when I make an open records request?

No. The Texas Public Information Act does not allow government officials to ask why you want the information.

I generally find that a very polite response – with an emphasis on polite – noting that the law doesn’t allow them to ask will generally put an end to that line of questioning.

According to the Texas Attorney General’s office, a government agency is allowed to ask for proper identification of the requestor and for clarification, if necessary, on the information requested.

“Often, an initial open records request may involve the production of more documents than the requestor intended,” according to the attorney general’s Web site. “Similarly, many open records requests ask for information that is not kept by the governmental body in the requested format. In either case, the governmental body can ask the requestor whether a potential narrowing or variation of the request would meet the requestor’s needs.”

For more information about this issue or the Texas Public Information Act, visit the attorney general’s web site at, and then click on the “open government” tab. Down the right side of the screen you will see a prompt for “public information act made easy.” This is a great resource for explaining the law and how it has been interpreted over the years.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

Are court records covered by Texas public information laws?

No. They are open to the public but not because of the state’s open government laws. Court records are considered public documents under common law. That means a person can view documents during reqular business hours at the district clerk’s office or in other specified offices where those records are kept at the county courthouse. Sometimes a judge may have a record checked out, and those records, too, can be viewed by the public by going directly to the judge’s office. A written request is not needed for court records.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

A local agency recently held a closed-door meeting with a businessman who is trying to buy a piece of property. Can they do that?

The Texas Attorney General’s office has held that outside members of the public are not allowed to attend executive sessions.

The Texas Attorney General’s office, moreover, notes on its Web site in discussing the state open meetings law, specifically, that “a governmental body … should not allow someone to attend an executive session regarding a proposed real estate transaction if this person is bargaining with the local unit for the purchase or sale of the real property.”

A governmental body is allowed to discuss in executive session a real estate transaction, or to discuss that item with its own attorney, but the Attorney General has held that outside parties (other than certain officials or personnel, such as a city manager or school superintendent) are not authorized to attend an executive session.

For more information, visit the Texas Attorney General’s Web site.

You can click on the open government section and find a number of resources, including copies of the Texas Open Meetings and Open Records Laws, and easy guides to those laws. You can also print off copies of specific attorney general opinions to give to local government officials, if they doubt your word.

Here are some direct links