Texas law restricts security camera files

TEXAS — Under a new state law, college journalists in the Lone Star State can no longer obtain information about security cameras on their campus. 

In June, Gov. Rick Perry signed a state homeland security law that seals records pertaining to state-funded security systems. The specifications, operating procedures and locations of cameras are now confidential in an effort to protect both private and public property from an act of terrorism. 

If the provision is applied retroactively, it could strike down an open-records request filed last fall by the University of Texas at Austin student newspaper for information about cameras on campus and in the city. 

Under the new law, the state must continue to release information about the amount of funding provided to all security systems it operates.

Locations of security cameras in a private office of a state agency also remain public record unless the office is “an individual personal residence” or the cameras are being used for surveillance in an active criminal investigation.

The legislation, however, makes confidential the locations of security cameras in public areas.

Jason Hunter, former editor of The Daily Texan, said the legislation is intended to prevent the release of information requested by the newspaper.

“I don’t think there is any question that the security legislation was directly aimed towards [the Texan’s] request,” Hunter said. “I mean they even lifted the language directly from it. They didn’t get too creative.”

In October of 2002, UT officials denied an open-records request filed by The Daily Texan, claiming that the university could not release information about the cameras because of national security concerns. 

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot reviewed the request and ruled that the records must be provided because campus security cameras were not part of a national security plan. UT filed a lawsuit against Abbott to overturn his decision. 

After a district court dismissed the suit, the university appealed the case. The Third District Court of Appeals in Austin has agreed to hear the case, but no date has been set for oral arguments. 

The university and Abbott are still reviewing the new law to determine how it will affect The Daily Texan’s request for security camera records and the subsequent legal action taken by the university. 

Patricia Ohlendorf, legal counsel for UT, said the university will likely drop the lawsuit against Abbott if the law applies to the Texan’s request. 

The law is only retroactive if explicitly labeled so within the text, according to Andrea Varnell, a representative from the office of Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, the author of the security system provision. Within the section relating to security cameras, there is no mention of the law being retroactive.

LAW: An Act Relating to Homeland Security, Ch. 1312 (June 22, 2003).