The president of the Houston school board told a Texas Watchdog reporter on Monday that she hasn’t answered requests for comments about herself and her ties to district contractors for more than nine weeks because the reporter is unethical.
An incumbent campaigning to keep her seat against challenger Davetta Daniels on Nov. 8, told the reporter that she had “a whole list of unethical things” she said the reporter had done. “That’s why I won’t talk to you,” Harris said.
She accused Texas Watchdog of trying to secretly record that conversation and a Houston Independent School District audit committee meeting in August, which Texas Watchdog says is not true.
“I’m very busy,” Harris said Monday night. “I don’t have time to talk to you right now.”
HISD spokesman Jason Spencer this morning sent a letter to Texas Watchdog's editors, saying that the district "respectfully request(s) that Mr. Cronin be instructed to respect Ms. Harris’ decision to not speak with him." Spencer also said Texas Watchdog had "crossed the line into bullying, intimidating, and unethical behavior with respect to Trustee Harris."
Controversy has engulfed Harris in recent months. Texas Watchdog has reported these stories about her in recent months:
- That Harris voted four times to approve HISD contracts that included work for companies run her friends;
- That friends of hers have been paid more than $100,000 in no-bid work for everything from consulting to tutoring to dry cleaning school auditorium drapes;
- That HISD e-mails Harris sent to staff members of the Houston Independent School Districtraise questions about whether she helped arrange meetings with her friends to explore possible district business opportunities;
- Possible violations of HISD’s “silent period,” which forbids board members from speaking with vendors in the days leading up to votes on contract approvals.
As for blocking the reporter's Twitter account from her own Twitter account, “my political people take care of that,” Harris said. “I don’t know anything about that.”
Harris isn't the only Texas government official to have blocked a reporter from accessing her otherwise-public tweets. Gov. Rick Perry also has blocked reporters from following his official Twitter account, including Tom Benning of The Dallas Morning News; Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; and Scott Braddock of KRLD, a CBS-TV affiliate that covers Dallas and Fort Worth.
Texas Watchdog did not receive a reply to a message sent to Harris’ two e-mail accounts and the account of her spokeswoman, Jeri Brooks, asking what justification Harris, the elected president of a public agency, was using to block a journalist from reading statements she had labeled as her official remarks. Brooks is the lead strategist for the Houston-based One World Strategy Group, a communications consulting firm.
The e-mail from Spencer also claimed Texas Watchdog "has no legal right of access" to Harris' Twitter accounts.
Harris and Spencer also both accused Texas Watchdog of trying to secretly record the conversation it had with Harris Monday night at the HISD building — despite the fact that the reporter was holding his digital audio recorder in front of him the entire time. She asked whether it was against the law to tape record someone without their permission, and when the reporter replied it was not, Harris said, “Well, I think it’s unethical. This is why I don’t want to talk to you. Because you’re unethical.”
Texas and many other states require only one party's consent to a conversation for it to be legally recorded — in this case, the reporter's.
The reporter had been holding the recorder in front of his torso, between Harris and himself, in plain sight. The reporter did not have anything but the recorder in his hands.
“If you walked up to someone and started recording the conversation, that’s legal, with or without the other person’s consent,” said Bill Aleshire, an Austin-based lawyer at Riggs Aleshire & Ray. The former county judge of Travis County, Aleshire also provides legal advice for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in Austin.
“I don’t think public officials ought to be afraid to be taped,” said Aleshire, a former public official himself.
"That's patently false," Texas Watchdog Editor Trent Seibert said. "Our staff brought their audio-visual equipment to the audit committee meeting, as they are entitled to do under state law. They were told to leave when the committee went into a closed session. As they left, they were told by the school board members that they could not leave their equipment in the room. They gathered up their equipment and left the room."
FACEBOOK REMOVES POST ABOUT HARRIS
The Texas Watchdog reporter posted on his Facebook page Monday that Harris had blocked him from reading her HISD statements on her Twitter account. The post generated several reader comments and a discussion.
But less than two hours later, the post vanished.
By press time, Facebook officials had not responded to two e-mails – Facebook does not provide a media-relations phone number – asking how or why the post was removed.
But two cybersecurity experts and a web developer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh provided the most likely explanation: A person with access to Harris’ Facebook account reported to Facebook officials that the Texas Watchdog post constituted “abuse” against Harris.
It appears “someone complained to Facebook that someone had posted inappropriate content and Facebook deleted it,” said Lorrie Cranor. She is a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science and the College of Engineering.
Dena Haritos Tsamitis, who heads operations for Carnegie Mellon’s Information Networking Institute, said she asked a team of students to test a variety of scenarios to determine whether it was possible for a Facebook post to disappear “without someone hacking into your account or ‘the powers that be’ at Facebook getting involved and they have come to the conclusion that it's not.”
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called Facebook’s removal of the Texas Watchdog post “over the top.” The center is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on civil liberties, privacy protection and the First Amendment.
“Facebook appears to have violated its own terms of service,” Rotenberg said. “Facebook cannot remove a user’s post on a whim. There should be something in the terms of service that enables Facebook officials to objectively determine whether a post is abusive. It’s not enough simply to be asserted that it’s abusive.”
Beyond that, Rotenberg said that “the case is particularly troubling because it raises First Amendment concerns.”
The Texas Watchdog post was reporting on the activity of public officials – it’s public activity, Rotenberg said.
“Facebook will say they’re a private company, but the courts have recognized circumstances of First Amendment rights against private actors,” Rotenberg said. “A journalist is trying to report on a public official. If there’s any speech that’s more protected than that, I’m not sure what it would be.”
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