TEXAS —Under a state Homeland Security law enacted in June, public officials cannotdisclose the locations of certain security cameras on private and publicproperty.If the provision is applied retroactively, it could strike down anopen-records request filed last fall by the University of Texas at Austinstudent newspaper, which was asking for information about cameras on campus andin the city. Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 9 on June 22, effectivelysealing information about state-funded security systems in order to protectpublic or private property from an act of terrorism or related criminalactivity. Records that relate to the specifications, operating procedures andlocation of security cameras are now confidentialThe locations ofsecurity cameras that are “in a private office at a state agency,” including auniversity, are still available to the public unless the cameras are in “anindividual personal residence” or are being used for surveillance in an activecriminal investigation. The location of security cameras in universitydormitories most likely would not be kept confidential because dorms do notconstitute individual residences, said Andrea Varnell, a representative from theoffice of Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, the author of the security systemprovision in House Bill 9. Under the provision, information about cameras at thegovernor’s mansion would be exempt from public disclosure, but locationsof cameras in offices of state legislators would be public record, shesaid.The state must continue to release information about the amount offunding provided to all security systems it operates.Jason Hunter,former editor of The Daily Texan, said the legislation is intended toprevent the release of information requested by the newspaper.”I don’tthink there is any question that the security legislation was directly aimedtowards [the Texan’s] request,” Hunter said. “I mean they even lifted thelanguage directly from it. They didn’t get too creative.”In October of2002, The Daily Texan filed an open-records request for information aboutthe location, cost, recording hours and technical specifications of securitycameras at the University of Texas and in the city of Austin.UTofficials denied the request, claiming that it would hamper the university’sability to protect the campus from crime. The university said it was protectedfrom disclosure under national security exemptions.The request wasreviewed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who ruled in favor of thenewspaper. He said that campus security cameras were not part of the nationalsecurity plan and records pertaining to them must be released. UT filed alawsuit against Abbott to overturn his decision. Travis County DistrictJudge Paul Davis dismissed the suit in February, and the university decided inMarch to appeal the case. The Third Court of Appeals in Austin has agreed tohear the case, but no date has been set for oral arguments. Theuniversity and Abbott are still reviewing House Bill 9 to determine how it willaffect The Daily Texan’s request for security camera records and thesubsequent legal action taken by the university. “We are going to take alook at [the law in the context of the lawsuit] and see where there may be somechanges that need to be made,” said Abbott’s press secretary MikeViesca.Patricia Ohlendorf, legal counsel for UT, said the universitywill likely drop the lawsuit against Abbott if the law applies to The DailyTexan’s request. “The bill does indicate that locations ofsecurity cameras and devices are confidential,” Ohlendorf said. “Assuming thatthis law is retroactive it would take care of a number of issues we raised inour lawsuit.”Varnell said the bill is only retroactive if explicitlylabeled so within the text. Within the section relating to security cameras,there is no mention of the bill being retroactive. But both Ohlendorf and Viescasaid the state government is currently determining whether the bill can beapplied to The Daily Texan’s request.
Read previous coverage
- Texas government sheds light on school records The Report, Spring 2003
- Texas district judge rules UT-Austin must hand over security camera files News Flash, 3/4/2003
- Univ. of Texas sues Attorney General to dispute disclosure of security cameras News Flash, 1/27/2003