Citing national security, Texas exempts some security camera records from public disclosure
 
TEXAS — Under a state Homeland Security law enacted in June, public officials cannot disclose the locations of certain security cameras on private and public property.

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, which was asking for information about cameras on campus and in the city.

Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 9 on June 22, effectively sealing information about state-funded security systems in order to protect public or private property from an act of terrorism or related criminal activity. Records that relate to the specifications, operating procedures and location of security cameras are now confidential

The locations of security cameras that are "in a private office at a state agency," including a university, are still available to the public unless the cameras are in "an individual personal residence" or are being used for surveillance in an active criminal investigation.

The location of security cameras in university dormitories most likely would not be kept confidential because dorms do not constitute individual residences, said Andrea Varnell, a representative from the office of Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, the author of the security system provision in House Bill 9. Under the provision, information about cameras at the governor’s mansion would be exempt from public disclosure, but locations of cameras in offices of state legislators would be public record, she said.

The state must continue to release information about the amount of funding provided to all security systems it operates.

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, The Daily Texan filed an open-records request for information about the location, cost, recording hours and technical specifications of security cameras at the University of Texas and in the city of Austin.

UT officials denied the request, claiming that it would hamper the university's ability to protect the campus from crime. The university said it was protected from disclosure under national security exemptions.

The request was reviewed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who ruled in favor of the newspaper. He said that campus security cameras were not part of the national security plan and records pertaining to them must be released. UT filed a lawsuit against Abbott to overturn his decision.

Travis County District Judge Paul Davis dismissed the suit in February, and the university decided in March to appeal the case. The Third 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 House Bill 9 to determine how it will affect The Daily Texan's request for security camera records and the subsequent legal action taken by the university.

"We are going to take a look at [the law in the context of the lawsuit] and see where there may be some changes that need to be made," said Abbott's press secretary Mike Viesca.

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

"The bill does indicate that locations of security cameras and devices are confidential," Ohlendorf said. "Assuming that this law is retroactive it would take care of a number of issues we raised in our lawsuit."

Varnell said the bill is only retroactive if explicitly labeled so within the text. Within the section relating to security cameras, there is no mention of the bill being retroactive. But both Ohlendorf and Viesca said the state government is currently determining whether the bill can be applied to The Daily Texan's request.

 
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