Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Court Rules: Confiscating Cameras At Town Halls Violates 1st Amendment

Last week, Rep. Steve Chabot (R - Ohio) held a Town Hall meeting in a public school. Chabot directed the on duty police officers to confiscate the cameras of citizens who tried to film his responses during the Town Hall - probably because he didn't want his responses posted on the Internet. It was all caught on camera, which of course ended up on the Internet. (smile)

Here is some video of what happened:

Rep. Chabot's tortured justification for confiscation of personal property in a public venue was that it was "necessary for the protection of his constituents". It should be noted too that other "official" (ie. local TV) cameras were rolling and those were not considered to be a threat to the "protection of his constituents". Basically Chabot was trying to squelch his responses from being posted on the Internet by ordinary citizens who attended this Town Hall. Ironically, this made things even worse for him. He should note that a Federal Court ruling on Friday made it clear that his request to bar videotaping and confiscating cameras was a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of those who were filming/taping the event.

So - Let's be clear - According to this recent Federal Appeals court ruling, members of Congress (and any other elected official) cannot legally confiscate citizens’ cell phones or cameras or deny filming at town halls (public venues) - to do so is a violation of their First Amendment rights. One might want to print out a copy of the ruling and carry it with them.

Here is what the judge had to sayin a similar case:
It is firmly established that the First Amendment’s aegis extends further than the text’s proscription on laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information.

As the Supreme Court has observed, “the First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.” First Nat’l Bank v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783 (1978); see also Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 564 (1969) (“It is . . .well established that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas.”). An important corollary to this interest in protecting the stock of public information is that “[t]here is an undoubted right to gather news ‘from any source by means within the law.’” Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1, 11 (1978) (quoting Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 681-82 (1972)).

The filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these principles. Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting “the free discussion of governmental affairs.” Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966).

Moreover, as the Court has noted, “[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because ‘[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.’” First Nat’l Bank, 435 U.S. at 777 n.11 (alteration in original) (quoting Thomas Emerson, Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment 9 (1966)).

The court found that people have the First Amendment right to film government officials (elected or otherwise) in public while they are doing their job administering their duties. This is a fundamental right to protect us from tyranny as it is a means of gathering information that can and should be disseminated to the public at large.

This also means that one can videotape police officers - SWAT teams - and Municipal Town Hall officials as they conduct their business. It's a good way to document constitutional rights abuses.

Clearly a win for "The People".
Unfortunately what this means is that members of Congress will simply dispense with holding Town Halls with their constituents... or they will pack the room with only pre-screened supporters. This practice has already taken hold in CT.

So just remember, dear public servants - we'll be watching you!:

On another note: Chabot voted to raise the debt ceiling too... Ohio needs to seriously dump this guy.