By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association
The Morristown Town Council experienced a contentious meeting recently with members of the audience questioning them in what the council felt was an unruly manner.
According to an audio recording made without the council’s knowledge and shared with me, council members took steps to control future crowds, but they went beyond what is allowed under the Open Door Law in their new restrictions on audience participation.
The ideas started out reasonably enough.
They decided to set up a podium where citizens could present their thoughts to the council.
The speakers could be limited to three minutes, they said.
The council suggested that, to save time, the audience would be asked to appoint a spokesperson to speak for the entire group if everyone could agree upon a representative.
I see nothing wrong with those concepts.
The Open Door Law guarantees the public the opportunity to only “observe and record” the meetings of governing bodies.
The law doesn’t give attendees of school board, city council, or other meetings the right to speak.
Fortunately, most boards, commissions and councils recognize the benefit of allowing citizen input and create a mechanism for input.
Apparently that’s what Morristown council members wanted to do.
But then they went out of bounds and voted to ban audio and video recording of meetings by a third party.
A voice on the recording states, “There’s no need for a third party to come in and record our meetings.”
The concern is voiced that someone could cut and splice recordings to distort what occurred at a council meeting.
If someone wants to hear what happened, they can ask to listen to the recording made by the council or attend the meetings, they said.
It was even suggested that smartphones and cameras could be confiscated if someone refused to stop recording a meeting.
The law isn’t on their side.
The Open Door law specifically gives the public the right to record public meetings for their personal use, to share with neighbors, to post on the Internet, or to broadcast on public television if a station is interested.
You can find the “observe and record” language at IC 5-14-1.5-3, where the statute states that “… all meetings of the governing bodies of public agencies must be open at all times for the purpose of permitting members of the public to observe and record them.”
The town council doesn’t have the authority to ban audio and video recordings of public meetings.
The Indiana Supreme Court erased any doubt about this right in 1989.
In Berry v. Peoples Broadcasting Corp., the justices said governing bodies couldn’t ban the use of cameras and tape recorders at public meetings.
The public has the right to memorialize the words and actions of its elected officials without relying on the official version sanctioned by a council, board or commission.
I wonder how long it will take before the Morristown Town Council rescinds its ban? Stay tuned.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.