The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is deeply concerned about the arrests of citizens for filming the Wisconsin Legislature, a right expressly afforded by the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“These arrests appear to violate the spirit and the letter of the Open Meetings Law which, ironically enough, was passed by the Wisconsin state Legislature,” said Bill Lueders, Council president. “We see no reason that exercising a right guaranteed by state law should lead to people being issued citations or hauled off to jail.”
According to a report published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a dozen protesters were arrested Tuesday for filming and holding up signs in the Assembly gallery. Nine were issued citations for disorderly conduct, while three were jailed for bail jumping, the paper reported. The bail-jumping arrests occurred because the three were previously cited for filming the Legislature and released on condition that they obey state administrative rules.
In June, police intervened to stop a young man from videotaping a committee meeting. According to an account by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, who witnessed this event, “The man was causing no disturbance; in fact, he said not a word. But still his behavior could not be tolerated. Not one, not two, not three but four uniformed and armed police officers were summoned to handle this breach of peace.”
Additionally, there were incidents in September and again last week in which protesters have been removed from the Legislature and cited because they were silently filming the proceedings.
Section 19.90 of the state’s Open Meetings Law, which dates to 1977, states in its entirety: “Whenever a governmental body holds a meeting in open session, the body shall make a reasonable effort to accommodate any person desiring to record, film or photograph the meeting. This section does not permit recording, filming or photographing such a meeting in a manner that interferes with the conduct of the meeting or the rights of the participants.”
“Just because the Legislature can violate the Open Meetings Law doesn’t mean it should,” said Lueders, referring to the Supreme Court ruling this June that essentially exempted the state Legislature from the Open Meetings Law. “This is a law that has served the state well, helping to build trust between government officials and the governed. It deserves more respect.”
The Legislature has cited its own rules, specifically Assembly Rule 26, as prohibiting filming from the gallery. Protesters have received citations that cite Department of Administration administrative codes. The Council questions whether these rules should be used to bar conduct expressly protected by the Open Meetings Law.
Said Lueders, “We call on the state Legislature, as well as the Department of Administration and the Capitol police, to obey the law in place for all other state and local governmental bodies and allow citizens to unobtrusively film legislative proceedings.”
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is a statewide group that works to protect public access to meetings and records. Its sponsor organizations include the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Wisconsin Associated Press, Wisconsin News Photographers and the Society of Professional Journalists
More on this topic at A day without rights in the Wisconsin Assembly
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