AUSTIN, Texas —
A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld Texas' open meetings law, rejecting a lawsuit that argued it stifles free speech for government officials and subjects them to criminal penalties for talking business in informal settings.
The 1967 Texas Open Meetings Act prohibits a quorum of members of a governmental body from deliberating in secret. Violations are punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Officials from a group of 15 Texas cities, including Alpine, Arlington and Wichita Falls, challenged the law in 2009, arguing it criminalizes political speech. The officials argued that while they support open government, the open meetings act outlawed such behavior as simply talking to a colleague about a matter on a city council agenda.
A U.S. district judge ruled against the cities in 2011, prompting an appeal the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The ruling by the three-judge panel said the law promotes the disclosure of speech and does not restrict it.
The purpose of the law is to increase transparency, foster trust in government and ensure that all members of a governing body can take part in discussions on public business, the court's unanimous opinion said.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called the decision "a great victory for democracy and the First Amendment," and added that "a healthy democracy requires that the public have access to how government operates."