California Assembly gets tough on taping during sessions

Is it a matter of “decorum,” or does the California Assembly have other reasons for enforcing a rule that prohibits reporters from using cameras and microphones without permission from the Speaker’s office?

Sept. 3, 2010

By Jim Sanders

The Sacramento Bee

The California Assembly has begun enforcing a dusty rule in which the media can watch lawmakers debate public policy on one condition: Turn off the video cameras and microphones.

Sergeants-at-arms, in a broad push by Assembly leaders to enhance decorum, recently began confronting credentialed members of the media and others who were recording or videotaping official business during public session.

The issue pits the right of the media to document actions of public officials affecting public policy against lawmakers’ concerns that a private conversation or an unseemly gesture could be captured and transmitted instantly via the Internet.

The crackdown comes about a year after then-Assemblyman Mike Duvall resigned in shame after the married Yorba Linda Republican bragged of having sex with two mistresses in a private conversation captured by an open Assembly microphone at a committee hearing.

The Assembly policy is one of many house rules cited in a July 29 letter by Assembly leaders for enforcement, including a dress code interpreted by sergeants-at-arms as requiring women to wear a coat or sweater to enter the chamber. That requirement was suspended amid controversy.

The policy on cameras and tape recorders reads:

“With exception of the Assembly television project, flash photography, videotaping, and voice recording are not permitted in the chamber at any time without prior permission.”

The provision ends by saying that requests for permission must be sent to the Assembly Speaker’s Office. It does not indicate whether separate approval must be sought for each topic recorded, each lawmaker interviewed, or for a particular day or week.

By contrast, state law – approved by the Legislature – requires city, county, school district, and state boards and commissions to give any spectator “the right to record the proceedings with an audio or video recorder” unless doing so creates noise or other problems.

Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said state law excludes the Legislature from the open-meeting laws it sets for local governments but that it makes little sense to bar media recording.

“It sends a message that they want the public to hear just what they want the public to hear,” he said.

Majority Leader Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, said he wants better enforcement of existing Assembly rules to “bring more predictability and more stability to how the house runs.”

Controversial policies, including the recording policy, will be reviewed before the Legislature reconvenes in January, he said. “We need to rewrite them and make them more relevant and current to today’s world,” he said.

But disallowing routine tape recording of legislative conversations or floor debate does not necessarily inhibit the media, Calderon said.

“I don’t think so, because there was a time that reporters didn’t have tape recorders – and they used to be able to report. I think reporters are professionals, and they’re pretty good at their craft.”

Reporters barred from using tape recorders could review television broadcasts of Assembly floor sessions produced by the house itself. No such alternative exists for recording interviews with legislators during public sessions.

Barbara O’Connor, a retired instructor of political communications at California State University, Sacramento, said that rather than crack down on recording devices, lawmakers would be better served by biting their lips.

“My theory on all this is, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” she said. “We are a society of digital equipment and digital material. … I think you live in the new reality that everything you do is under scrutiny.”

But Tracy Westen, chief executive officer of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said a balance should be struck between public scrutiny and the need for a lawmaker to be free to negotiate bluntly and privately, if necessary, with a colleague on the problems with a bill.

“The risk is not so much that something bad will be publicized,” Westen said. “That’s a threat, but the risk is that conversations no longer will be frank and candid.”

Besides the media, the Assembly’s recording policy affects anyone on the chamber floor, including visitors, legislative staff and, apparently, Assembly members themselves.

The prohibition on unbridled recording by the media has been on the books for years but has rarely, if ever, been enforced in the past decade. Reporters and photographers are required by the Assembly to be credentialed each year, but afterward, they routinely record official proceedings from designated areas of the chamber.

Senate rules say the media “may not be prohibited from taking photographs of, televising, or recording” meetings, unless doing so creates an obstruction, disruption or potential hazard.

Tony Beard Jr., the Senate’s chief sergeants-at-arms, has a ready response if a senator questions the lawful actions of a reporter or photographer.

“They have a right to be here, they have a right to record – you need to be cognizant of what you say and what you do,” Beard said.

Shannon Murphy, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, said the Assembly recording policy predates most house members.

“It’s something the speaker has asked to be reviewed to make sure that reporters and legislators can all do their jobs and that the public’s business is done in a very public way,” she said.

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