Freedom to videotape Maryland’s Legislature

There’s a subtle free-press debate going on in the Maryland General Assembly.

Last month, while sitting in the press area in the Maryland Senate, reporter Bryan P. Sears of The Daily Record, as he has done many times, videotaped a senator’s floor speech. However, as the speech concluded, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. reminded the chamber that videotaping is allowed only if permission is granted.

The press may observe Senate actions and take notes, but may not shoot photos or video unless the Senate president says so.

This is the Senate rule: “Prior permission of the President of the Senate is required before any photographing or televising can take place in the Senate Chamber [or] Lounge.”

The same rule applies in the Maryland House of Delegates chamber: “Prior permission of the House Speaker is required before any photographing or televising can take place in the House Chamber or Lounge.”

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch doesn’t enforce the rule. Journalists may shoot photos or video of proceedings from the designated press area at any time.

Why have a rule if it’s not enforced? That’s a good question.

Miller had not been enforcing the rule before, either, but his warning to Sears/the chamber changed that. Now, journalists must ask Miller’s staff every day for permission to photograph and videotape, on the off chance they might want to do either during that day’s Senate session.

I don’t know of anyone being turned down for permission. So, why have that rule if everyone gets permission, every time?

If you don’t ask for that daily permission, you may not pick up your smartphone and videotape when an interesting, unplanned debate unfolds before you.

A few days after issuing the reminder to the chamber, in announcing that journalists had permission to videotape that day, Miller joked with senators that a video clip of their comments might show up in a campaign ad.

That ignored the fact that the audio of each day’s House and Senate sessions already is broadcast live, then archived. Anyone looking for a soundbite for later use already has a way to get it; whether the press videotapes that day changes nothing.

SPJ objects to these limitations on the press, which have a discriminatory side effect: Observers sitting above in the gallery of the Senate chamber may videotape without prior permission; the press may not.

On Feb. 10, SPJ President Lynn Walsh sent a letter to Miller, Busch and their aides, urging that the rule be stricken for each chamber. SPJ also is asking that a new rule be written clarifying the rights of journalists to fully do their jobs during open sessions of the state Legislature.

Despite the House rule, Busch has not kept journalists from photographing or videotaping without prior permission. But the rule is in place in both chambers, and could be arbitrarily enforced in either, so SPJ sent the letter to Busch, too.

(A footnote: Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed a Legislative Transparency Act of 2017. A press release says the proposal “requires that all meetings of the General Assembly be livestreamed, which is done in all but seven states in the nation. The governor’s FY 2018 budget includes $1.2 million to fund the livestreaming.”)

Here’s the SPJ letter:

February 10, 2017

Dear President Miller and Speaker Busch:

We are writing to discuss a rule that limits photography and videotaping by the press in the Maryland Senate and House chambers without prior permission. The rule became recently when President Miller reminded Bryan Sears, a reporter for The Daily Record, as he was videotaping a floor speech in the Senate, that he needed to get permission first.

Perhaps this rule made sense years ago, when videotaping was only done by camera crews, requiring large equipment that might have been a distraction to, or even interfered with, the legislature’s operation.

The media landscape has greatly changed. Now, during chamber sessions, journalists might take notes for a future story in print or on the web, but they also might cover proceedings live through Facebook, Twitter, Periscope and other platforms, especially since the public cannot watch the Legislature’s proceedings through a video broadcast. We are no longer limited to the specialties we used to have.

All that journalists need for multimedia work is a small electronic device, such as a smartphone or a tablet. For videotaping, they hold up the electronic device from their seat and press a button; they don’t interfere and are barely noticed.

We have concerns about applying an outdated rule to a current approach to journalism. It has created discriminatory differentiation, as TV crews daily set up in the chambers and are allowed (even without asking permission each time) to get footage for their reports. Other journalists are not allowed to get the same footage for their publications and websites without permission, which is logistically impossible when news develops on the spot.

The rule also creates an imbalance in which the public, from the gallery, may take pictures or video clips from their seats, but journalists on the floor cannot without prior permission.

President Miller has expressed a concern about legislators knowing they are being taped and that their words might be replayed elsewhere. But the audio of chamber sessions already is broadcast; videotaping by journalists does not change anything, other than matching a face to a voice.

We ask that both chambers drop or amend their rule, and rely on current practice, which works well. Journalists who receive credentials through the Department of General Services should be allowed to remain in the press area of each chamber and do their jobs, involving any platform, as long as it does not interfere with the proceedings. Warnings or limitations should be based on that principle, rather than an outdated rule that hampers their work.

We also ask that a rule clearly enshrining press rights be put in place, so that there is no confusion in the future.

A suggested update to the rule is:
“From the press area, credentialed journalists may take photos or video of proceedings, as long as it does not interfere.”

We look forward to hearing from you on this matter.

Yours truly,

Lynn Walsh
President, Society of Professional Journalists
Investigative executive producer, NBC 7 San Diego

 

*****
Disclosure: Besides serving as SPJ’s Region 2 director, I am a city editor with The Frederick News-Post, which covers the Maryland General Assembly.

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