Government bodies like to set a tone.
They demonstrate where they’re going and what their priorities are by putting matters that are most important to them at the top of the list. What they care about most comes first.
So what message does it send to the people when one of the very first orders of business for the 2017 session of the New York State Senate is to ban the use of cell phones and other recording equipment in and around the Senate chamber?
The first order of business wasn’t ethics. It wasn’t homelessness. Or taxes. Or education. Or the heroin epidemic. It was cell phone use by the public in the Senate chamber.
Citizens who go to the state Capitol for something other than a tour tend to be a rowdy bunch, especially when they get upset over silly little things like polluted wells, the education of their children or their overwhelming tax burden.
And where better for them to share their concerns than in the halls of government where the decisions are being made?
After all, if you’re upset with the school board, you go to where the school board meeting is being held. If you’re upset with something going on in your town, you attend a town board meeting or picket outside.
So naturally, if you’re upset with something the state Legislature is doing and want to send them a message, you head to where they gather. And for state senators, that’s the Senate chamber.
Under the new rule adopted on the first day of the new session Wednesday, the Senate stated that “Cellular telephones shall not be used to take photographs, videos or perform any other recording function in the Senate Chamber, galleries or lobbies except those photographic and recording functions performed by official Senate photographers and videographers, without the permission of the Secretary of the Senate.”
Senate leaders said the rule was put into place to promote “decorum” in the chamber, that too many people were being impolite and talking on their phones and taking pictures while senators were trying to conduct business.
Certainly, you don’t want people making it impossible for government officials to conduct their business. If senators can’t hear themselves talk because so many people in the gallery are rudely chatting over them, then, as we’ll point out later, they have a legitimate and legal right to call for order.
But this ban goes far beyond that.
It doesn’t just demand that people be quiet while the Senate is in session. It doesn’t ban idle chatter and loud phone conversations.
The new rule calls for a specific and outright ban on any recording equipment.
They’re not preventing you from disrupting proceedings. They’re preventing you from documenting them.
Another thing to consider. Note that the ban isn’t limited to the meeting hall where senators are conducting their business. It extends far outside their official work area, to the lobbies and galleries surrounding the chamber, where citizens often gather to discuss matters or to hold protests.
By freezing out recording equipment, the Senate is throwing a cover over the public’s ability to share their discussions and protests with others who aren’t in attendance, including those on social media sites.
In justifying the ban on outside cameras, senators said the proceedings are recorded and broadcast on state television. But those recordings and broadcasts only show what senators want the public to see, not what the public wants the public to see.
Protests and pickets and citizens challenging senators to their faces make them look bad. So by prohibiting people’s ability to photograph events in the chamber and the lobbies, the Senate is taking proactive steps to remove any evidence of public activity that might reflect poorly on them.
That’s not a legitimate reason for enacting such a rule.
While just the concept of banning public recordings of Senate proceedings should be enough of a reason not to enact the ban, the entire action happens to violate the state’s Open Meetings Law.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, told the Associated Press that the law specifically states that “any meeting of a public body (and that includes both houses of the state Legislature) that is open to the public shall be open to being photographed, broadcast, webcast or otherwise recorded and/or transmitted by audio and or video means.”
Can’t get much clearer than that.
Freeman did say that the law does allow government bodies to pass rules to prevent disruption of meetings because of noise created by the equipment or conversation. We agree they should have done that.
At least the Senate didn’t go as far as Republicans in the House of Representatives did earlier in the week when they passed a similar ban that included a $2,500 fine for violators. Thankfully, all you’ll get from violating the state Senate’s policy is a stern reprimand and a demand from someone in a suit that you put the phone away.
When government takes these kinds of overreaching measures to keep the public at bay, they’re sending a message alright — that they’re chicken.
They’re afraid you won’t like what they’re doing. And they’re hoping you don’t find out.