In a story published last week on an Eddie Rodriguez for Congress mailer, and the response from Greg Casar supporters, I worked really hard to play it down the middle and just analyze the controversy. There was one line in the letter from “Democratic officials and progressive leaders,” however, on which I just have to offer some comments. 

As noted in yesterday’s story, these officials and leaders said Rodriguez’s attack mailer on Casar “appears to fear monger about unhoused people and disparage the work of the Austin City Council.” OK, their main point was the accusation of fear monger(ing) about unhoused people.” I analyzed that in the earlier article and left it to readers and voters to determine how they feel about that. But, let’s look at that second clause, “appears to . . . disparage the work of the Austin City Council?”

Come on man. Are y’all serious? Disparaging the City Council is one of the oldest traditions in Austin. Now, according to these folks that’s some sort of sin or social crime. Signers of that letter included Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza, Travis County Attorney and former Council Member Delia Garza, Council Member Natasha Harper Madison and Council Member Elect Chito Vela. Vela has barely gotten started, and he’s already complaining about people disparaging the Council. It might be a long few years for him. 

I don’t mean to brag, but I’m sort of an expert on disparagement of the Austin City Council. I’ve engaged in it, and experienced it, from a number of directions and angles. I’ve done a lot of it myself in print. I’ve seen and heard many, many other people do it. And, for nine years I was karmically on the receiving end of disparagement “of the work of the Austin City Council.”

But I — nor anyone else I ever served with or covered up to now — would have thought to call for an end to disparagement of the Austin City Council; or to label that as some sort of social crime. If for no other reason, we didn’t want to endure the intense scorn and ridicule, the disparagement you might say, that would follow such a statement. I guess we’re in a different era now.

Nonetheless Council Members should brace for continuing disparagement. By the way, the dictionary on my computer defines disparagement as “regard or represent as being of little worth,” with synonyms including “belittle, denigrate, deprecate, depreciate, downgrade, play down, deflate, trivialize, minimize, make light of, treat lightly, undervalue . . .”

Disparaging Not Limited To Republicans

Another aspect of this complaint is that it came as part of charging Rodriguez with engaging in “Republican-style campaign tactics” and lecturing him that his tactics “are shameful and have no place in the Democratic Party.” The reason I bring this up is that disparaging the Austin City Council is not something that is only done by Republicans. It has for decades been not just a bipartisan activity, but a multi-partisan activity. People of virtually every persuasion, ideology, party and mental state have engaged in it. It’s for everybody. 

In all seriousness, I realize that there are differences between disagreement, criticism and disparagement. But, that raises the question of how Rodriguez’s mailer, from which the officials and leaders did not challenge a single fact, rose in their minds to the level of disparagement. To me this sounds like the letter signers version of Donald Trump whining about “presidential harassment.” How’s that for disparagement? 

I hate to say it, but the signers of this letter — including our District Attorney and County Attorney could learn something about free speech and having a sense of humor from the panel of Republican judges who recently rendered a final ruling in the complaint, most likely by some of their fellow Republican(s), against Austin State Senator, and former Travis County Judge, Sarah Eckhardt

Yes, Some Republicans Do Have a Sense of Humor

Readers may recall that in 2019 someone anonymously filed a complaint against Eckhardt with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, claiming that she had violated rules of judicial conduct. It was a stretch to even file something with this commission because County Judge is just the archaic term that still officially applies even though most urban County Judges in Texas are the top County executive and do not engage in judicial activities. That includes Eckhardt. In December 2020 the Commission ruled that Eckhardt “cast public discredit upon the judiciary.” Eckhardt, represented by local attorney Jim Cousar, appealed. A “Special Court of Review” issued a final ruling in her case on January 11 of this year.

State Senator Sarah Eckhardt

The judges on the Special Court of Review, all Republicans, were: Brian Quinn, Chief Justice of the Seventh Court of Appeals; Charles Kreger, Justice of the Ninth Court of Appeals; and W. Stacy Trotter, Justice of the Eleventh Court of Appeals 

The case was about free speech and from the beginning of their ruling it was clear that the judges were going to exercise their own free speech rights. [Before quoting that, however, a style note: the judges’ opinion contains a lot of quotations and citations. Once we try to add quotations and then change their quotations to single quote marks it becomes very confusing. So immediately below and in a quote further down, we determined to keep the quotation marks just like they were in the ruling, and not add any of our own — hopefully to avoid confusion.] Now, the judges:

“Can’t tell a book by its cover”; “don’t just scratch the surface”; “things aren’t what they seem”; “all that glitter’s not gold”; and “anything essential is invisible to the eyes” are just a few idioms describing the issue before this special court of review. [End quotation from judges]

The first complaint was that Eckhardt wore “a pink knitted beanie with cat ears, referred to as a ‘pussy hat,’ while presiding over a meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court.” This occurred as the Commissioners Court took up a resolution supporting women’s health and reproductive rights. And, as the Panel of Review noted, “the cap Eckhardt wore represented a symbol responding to tasteless commentary about women uttered by a United States President.”

The panel made quick work of this item, overturning the Commission’s “admonishing” of Eckhardt, explaining, “That wearing politically symbolic garb is protected speech has been true for innumerable years.”

We will rely on the Panel of Review to describe the second offense which occurred on a panel at South by Southwest. “Upon the panel’s convening at the festival, the moderator broached the subject of ‘actions at the state government level in Texas to override or preempt local government measures, such as regulation of ride sharing services and tree preservation ordinances.’ Responding, Eckhardt quipped that ‘Texas Governor Greg Abbott ‘hates trees because one fell on him.’ This utterance alluded to Governor Abbott’s partial, yet permanent, paralysis caused when a falling tree struck him.” As the panel noted Eckhardt apologized before the panel was over. She also called the Governor’s office and apologized. 

Here we will quote the panel’s decision and explanation at length. [And, here again we leave the quotation marks just as they are in the opinion, without adding our own.] Now the panel: 

Her intended “joke” may be injudicious and callous; indeed, she admitted as much. Yet, “First Amendment protections do not apply only to those who speak clearly, whose jokes are funny, and whose parodies succeed.” [several cases cited here]. Jokes, parody, and satire often shine light on issues of public interest and concern. One need only recall the stand-up routines of George Carlin, the pratfalls of Chevy Chase, scenes from “Thank You for Smoking,” or skits from Saturday Night Live as proof of that. They remain protected expressions, nonetheless. “We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in what otherwise might seem a trifling and annoying instance of individual distasteful abuse of a privilege, . . . fundamental societal values are truly implicated.” Cohen, 403 U.S. at 25. “That is why ‘wholly neutral futilities . . . come under the protection of free speech as fully as do Keats’ poems or Donne’s sermons,’” id. (quoting Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507, 528 (1948) (Frankfurter, J., dissenting)), “and why ‘so long as the means are peaceful, the communication need not meet standards of acceptability.’” And, therein fall Eckhardt’s words alluding to the Texas governor. [end quote from panel’s ruling].

They then dismissed the second “sanction” against Eckhardt, summarizing, “we vacate the sanctions levied by the Commission and deny further sanction.” 

With that the judges sent a message about free speech to Republican snow flakes; well, snow flakes of all persuasions. It’s a message that our District Attorney, County Attorney and other self described “Democratic officials and progressive leaders” might consider, rather than trying to cast people out of the party for disparagement of the Austin City Council.


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