But senators may be headed toward trying to stop the governor’s webcasting, even though she has every right to do it
The state’s Inspection of Public Records Act makes it illegal to ask someone who is requesting public records why they want to see the documents.
That’s because they’re records that belong to the public. The reason a member of the public wants to inspect them is none of the government’s business.
Similarly, the reason someone wants to photograph or film a public meeting of a legislative committee should be none of the government’s business.
Try telling that to the New Mexico Senate.
In response to Gov. Susana Martinez’s webcasting and archiving of committee meetings – which she’s using as part of a heavy lobbying effort – the vast majority of senators on Wednesday approved a new resolution requiring permission from the chair and ranking member to film, transmit or photograph a committee meeting.
That essentially means you have to justify yourself.
Thursday morning, framed signs announcing the new rule appeared outside each Senate committee room.
“Use of any filming or photography device while committee is in session must be cleared with the committee chair,” the sign states. Then, in smaller letters, “Does not apply to the news media.”
As I pointed my camera at the Senate Finance Committee chairman, John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, he stopped a hearing to ask me, in front of dozens of people, to identify myself. He asked the ranking member, Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, if was OK with her that I photograph. I don’t remember the exact wording, but she essentially asked why I was there.
Smith explained that I run a prominent blog. Beffort deferred to Smith, and he told me it was OK to photograph.
Someone not used to being singled out by lawmakers, such as a citizen visiting the Roundhouse and trying to take a photo with a camera phone, might have felt intimidated. Because of that, he might not try to take another photograph in the Roundhouse, even though it’s a building that belongs to him.
And that’s the problem. It’s like the U.S. Border Patrol asking at checkpoints where you’re going. The answer most people don’t have the chutzpah to give is that it’s none of their business. They have a right to ask if you’re an American citizen, but the government has absolutely no business knowing where you’re going.
Just as the government has no business asking someone why they want to see a public record. If it were legal to ask, the implication would be that some reasons would be valid grounds for allowing inspection, and others would not.
None of the government’s business
Similarly, there should be no motive for photographing or filming a meeting that senators can use to reject the attempt. Simply put, the motive is none of the government’s business.
But the new Senate rule seems to allow the committee chair and ranking member to judge motives for photographing or filming a public meeting in a public building and decide whether to shut it down. And senators aren’t the only ones to think this is appropriate.
The House has had a rule in place for years stating that no photography or recording is allowed without permission of the committee chair. But it’s never been enforced, at least with me, even though there are some chairs who definitely didn’t want me pointing my camera at them.
There’s a similarly inappropriate message placed on the Legislature’s webcasting page: “Any political use of this stream is prohibited.”
Come on. The video and audio streams of public meetings are owned by the public. People can do whatever they want with them. The rule that forbids political use could really only be used by the Legislature to censure one of its own members for breaking it.
Anyone is entitled to record and webcast public meetings
Which brings us back to the governor. She is recording and webcasting video of meetings anyone is entitled to record and webcast.
I understand why some lawmakers don’t like it. Martinez’s webcasting is certainly combative.
In some instances she’s posting video only of the arguments made by those on her side. And she’s using the webcasting as part of a forceful effort to lobby that has also included radio ads, robocalls, and hundreds of phone calls to Democratic members from around the state.
But it will be a real shame if lawmakers respond by trying to stop the governor’s webcasting, just like it was a shame that I was quizzed about why I wanted to photograph a public meeting.
Whether it’s me photographing a committee meeting for journalistic reasons, Martinez webcasting it for lobbying and/or political reasons, or some kid taking a photo with a camera phone to document a trip to the state capitol building, we’re supposed to not only allow such rights, but cherish them.
Other nations have been in the news lately for censoring the media and the public, but this is America.
Transparency and accessibility are good for all
If lawmakers don’t like the governor’s webcasting and archiving, there’s a simple solution: Webcast audio and video of all floor sessions and committee meetings and archive all of it yourselves.
Expand the official webcasting program to all legislative meetings, and archive it online. It’s the right thing to do – and I’m guessing the governor won’t have staffers duplicate your work.
And please, get rid of these ridiculous rules that allow lawmakers to shut down documentation of public meetings based on a person’s reason for wanting to document. Senators, this isn’t the appropriate response to Martinez’s webcasting.
It’s also time for Martinez to lead by example. She’s forcing archiving on the Legislature, and that’s great. But she should also be webcasting and archiving at least some meetings of executive branch boards and commissions.
Perhaps start with the State Investment Council and State Transportation Commission. Those are two public bodies under Martinez’s control that deal with a lot of money. It’s important to make their meetings more accessible too.
What’s good for one branch of government is good for all. Transparency and accessibility – two cornerstones of a healthy democracy – are certainly good for all. That includes you, legislators, and you, governor. Let’s see it.