Close to Home: Two Reporters Arrested in DC Public Meeting

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Here at the Sunlight Foundation mothership, when we talk about local, we tend to be talking about the issues faced by folks outside of the Beltway – challenges close to home that you’re tackling in New Hampshire, Utah, and elsewhere. But, given that we’re based in DC, we’re not exempt from paying attention to transparency issues that happen close to our home, either.

Take, for instance, the recent events that went down at a public meeting on Wednesday. Two reporters were arrested by US Park Police officers (!) at a Taxi Commission meeting: the first, Peter Tucker of thefightback.org, for taking photographs. The second, Reason TV’s Jim Epstein, for video-taping the arrest of the first.

Officers were directed to make the arrests by a member of the Commission’s staff. The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and John Kelly report that,

Earlier in the meeting, Tucker said, [interim chair of the Taxi Commission, Dena] Reed objected when he placed a microphone near her seat; he was told to place it some distance away. Previous commission meetings, he said, have included signs notifying attendees that no photographs [sic] or recordings are allowed.

Despite reports (and video) that Tucker and Epstein did nothing to disturb the meeting, the two men were arrested for “disorderly conduct and unlawful entry”…”Unlawful entry” of a public meeting. Business Insider reports that the reporters could be sentenced to nine months in jail and $1,250 in fines. All this, again, for recording a public meeting.

Sadly, DC is not among the states included in this incredible resource from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press that lists every state’s open records and meeting’s laws, but you can read the law that’s on DC’s books here: D.C. Open Meetings Act. As Debonis and Kelly note, although the law requires meetings of governmental bodies to be open to the public, it does not specifically address whether photographs or video recordings are permitted.

Public meetings are a big open government issue all around the country: You can’t get more basic transparency than having one’s government literally open the doors to let citizens in to listen to its dealings. But Tucker and Epstein’s experience highlights an important tension between government and technology: Not everyone can take time off to attend meetings of interest. Making public meetings truly accessible to the public means putting record of it online where the public can access it with as much detail (and data) as possible. The DC law may not explicitly provide for this level of public accessibility, but that doesn’t meant that they should throttle attempts by members of the press or public to do so.

Take a look for yourself at the arrests of the reporters below. We’ll post an update when there’s more news.

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