On Tuesday night the elected representatives of the Borough of Montrose, PA approved a laundry list of actions intended to clamp down on the public’s right to record and disseminate information about the council’s actions. The special meeting was adjourned after the council passed restrictions on how people, including journalists can engage in news-collecting by:
- restricting public comment to borough residents and taxpayers;
- limiting opportunity to speak by borough residents and taxpayers to three minutes;
- requiring video and recording devices to be located behind the last row of chairs in the meeting room;
- requiring video recording devices to be mounted on tripods and remain stationary and unmanned throughout the meeting;
- and requiring audio recording devices to also be located behind the back row and be visible.
Press reports quote ACLU staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper as characterizing the new rules as “wacky”, saying that they go too far.
A good portion of time before the meeting even started council members tried to persuade a credentialed independent journalist to move her video camera to the back of the room. They finally ordered a policeman to take her camera – and this occurred before the new rules were voted on. Their reason: someone might trip over the tripod.
Why are the good councilors of Montrose afraid of people recording their public, open meetings? Meetings that, according to PA law anyone can attend? Meetings that, according to PA law may be recorded?
Perhaps it has to do with an agenda item listed on their February 6 meeting – an item never discussed because the meeting was brought to an abrupt halt. Item number three, listed on the agenda under “Discussion Items” was “Jessup Street, water hydrant.” Nothing dramatic about that, unless you happen to know that the Pennsylvania American Water Company placed a hydrant there, on private land, and that hydrant is being used to fill a small water truck that delivers water to Dimock residents with contaminated wells, but who aren’t receiving water deliveries from the EPA.
About one dozen people showed up that night to hear the council’s discussion regarding the hydrant. The above-mentioned indy journalist was present with her video camera. She started recording before the meeting started, without any comments from the council members. However, once the council meeting was convened, the supervisor advised that people who, for religious or other reasons didn’t want their images recorded, could leave the room. All but one council member left, abandoning the council chambers, the citizens they’ve sworn to represent, the PA state constitution and democracy. You can watch that video here.
A few days before that, journalist and film-maker Josh Fox was forcibly removed from a public hearing in the Science, Space and Technology committee in Washington DC, and arrested – an action that many Representatives decried as shameful censorship. On Feb. 15 the US Attorney dropped the case, finding it baseless and without merit. Fox said that the incident “…serves as a painful reminder that we do not have rights unless we exercise them.” You can read his entire comment here.