Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU has sent a letter to Cranston City Council President Michael Farina asking that he, “clarify to the public that non-disruptive recordings of municipal meetings are allowed under the law.”
At the January 23 meeting of the Cranston City Council, Farina informed the room that “There are no electronic devices or recording devices allowed in the chamber.” Then, gesturing towards the official town council videographer, Farina added, “So please, if you were planning on recording this, the only device allowed would be the main recording device.”
This reporter was in the room at that time, and was running video. I raised my hand and rather awkwardly said, “That’s not actually legal. I’m with the press- anybody is allowed to bring recording devices in- The law is pretty clear on that. For all meetings throughout the state, that’s part of the open meetings [act].”
This led to some back and forth between Farina and his attorneys.
“Do you have a press pass?” Farina asked me.
“There’s no such thing as a press pass,” I replied, “because they don’t actually exist. But I do work for Rhode Island Future and I am a writer. I am a member of the press.”
This answer led to more back and forth between Farina and his attorneys. In retrospect, I should have been more forceful about the fact that any member of the public, not just the press, has a right to record the proceedings. But his question about the “press pass” hit another one of my pet peeves, because there is no government issued identification system for journalists.
Freedom of the press is for everyone, not just professional journalists. The idea of a “press pass” is something you see on TV shows. Press passes are issued for specific events. For instance, when I cover a ticketed event, I can request a press pass which is basically a free ticket, or if a presidential candidate is in town, I may have to be credentialed by the Secret Service in order to get access, but in general, there is no such thing as a press pass that works like a police badge for reporters.
At any rate, Brown’s letter cites case law that protects the public’s right to record meetings, and, writes Brown, “none of these cases involved a member of the press, so your queries as to whether the person wishing to record the meeting had a ‘press pass’ were completely irrelevant.”
Finally Farina decided to allow me a one time exception to videotape the proceedings. “I’ll allow it this evening because we do not have an opinion but we do have a rule, number 34(b) that does say no recording of conversations in the chamber.”
But as Brown says in his letter, “We have reviewed the City Council’s rules and have been unable to find any rule, including Rule 34(b), that contains the ban you cited.” Even if the rule said what Farina seemed to think it said, it would be unenforceable under the law.
So, please feel free to record public meetings. This applies to every open meeting in the State of Rhode Island, including committee meetings and the like, in every city and town. Have fun keeping our elected officials honest.
You can watch the video below: