Public meetings: To tape or not to tape?

We’ve been hearing a lot of stories lately about citizens running into problems with the recording of public meetings. This month, we’ve collected a few items on this topic, including some tips from a board member on what the law allows, a move by one city council member in Fort Wayne to make audiotapes of that body’s meetings more accessible, and one citizen activist’s battle with the city of Franklin over the taping of a meeting.

First, here’s what Steve Key, ICOG board member and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, has to say on the taping of public meetings. In a word, it’s allowed:

Anyone who wants to record an open meeting of the governing body of a state or local agency has the right to do so under the state’s Open Door Law.

I.C. 5-14-1.5-3 states that except for executive sessions, “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 Indiana Supreme Court interpreted the statute in a 1989 decision to mean that governing bodies could not ban the use of cameras and tape recorders at public meetings. See Berry v. Peoples Broadcasting Corp., 547 N.E.2d 231 (Ind. 1989).

So what should a citizen who plans to tape a public meeting do if a government official refuses to allow it?

First, inform the official that citizens have the right under the Open Door Law and point out the issue has already been decided by the Indiana Supreme Court. If the official still insists that no taping can occur and the meeting is occurring during business hours of a weekday, suggest the official make a quick call to Indiana’s Public Access Counselor, who can verify that the use of cameras and tape recorders must be allowed during a public meeting.

If the meeting is held in the evening or weekend, when the PAC is not available, suggest the official check the Handbook on Indiana’s Public Access Laws, which is accessible on the PAC Web site at www.in.gov/pac. The relevant section (I.C. 5-14-1.5-3) should be found on page 13 of the current handbook.

If the government official refuses to budge on the issue, ICOG does not suggest individuals put themselves at risk of arrest for disorderly conduct. A citizen may have to acquiesce at the meeting and follow up later with a request for an informal or formal opinion of the Public Access Counselor on the issue.

If the governing body refuses to abide by the advice of the PAC on this issue, the citizen can file a lawsuit seeking an injunction ordering compliance with the Open Door Law. A public agency can be forced to pay the costs of the lawsuit if the citizen prevails after having first sought an opinion from the PAC.

Now that we have that straight, take a look at (and listen to) what one right-thinking public official is doing. Fort Wayne council member Mitch Harper recently began audiotaping meetings of the council and posting them on his blog for all to access easily. You can read about it, and get the audio links, here.

Finally, not all public officials make it as easy as Harper. Citizen activist Gary Moody found that out when he tried to get a tape recording of a meeting in Franklin. The city was able to produce what reads like a word-for-word transcript, but Moody thought some things were missing. Oddly enough, the city claimed the tape recorder had malfunctioned and there was no recording of the meeting. You can read about Moody’s fight with city hall, as well as his frustrations with the Indiana Public Access Counselor, here.