NJ court: Citizens may videotape government meetings

While there is not a 'right to videotape,' governments ability to limit recording is quite limited, state Supreme Court rules, citing importance of open government.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a wake-up all to state and local governments this week: Wake up - it's the YouTube era.

Robert Wayne Tarus was arrested after he tried to videotape two Pine Hill Borough Council meetings in 2000. Yesterday the state Supreme Court ruled that governments can't unreasonably stop citizens from videotaping public meetings, although local governments may impose "reasonable guidelines" to ensure taping doesn't interrupt the body's business, The Star-Ledger reports.

"For any town that wants to rule with an iron fist, this puts them all on notice they can no longer do that and reaffirms the protection for every resident in the state of New Jersey," said Tarus, who works as a trucking company manager. "Knowledge is power and any time anyone wants to cut the flow of information or squeeze it, it should be looked at."

Chief Justice James Zazzali wrote that citizen-recording results in an "openness (that) reduces public corruption."

"Openness is a hallmark of democracy -- a sacred maxim of our government -- and video is but a modern instrument in that evolving pursuit," Zazzali wrote. "The use of modern technology to record and review the activities of public bodies should marshal pride in our open system of government, not muster suspicion against citizens who conduct the recording."

Public bodies "may impose reasonable guidelines to ensure that the recording of meetings does not disrupt the business of the body or other citizens' right of access," the court said. Such rules must be neutral and reasonable and limited.

New Jersey officials haven't always been in favor of open government.

In Piscataway, for instance, Clara Halper, whose family is embroiled in a dispute with township officials over their family-owned Cornell Dairy Farm, claimed a councilman tried to grab a video camera from her hand at a public meeting several years ago.

Tina Renna, a critic of the Union County government, had a run-in with freeholders last month over her plans to videotape budget hearings because of concerns the room was too small. The county later videotaped the proceedings and made tapes available.

"It was absurd, the reasons they gave me for not allowing to tape the budget hearings -- they just didn't want me to do it," said Renna, who in light of the decision plans to videotape other freeholder meetings not being recorded by the county. "They cannot keep the doors closed anymore because people like me are out there and with very little money can ... record their meetings better than they can."

Ed Barocas, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said: "Just as important as the specifics of the opinion ... was the general recognition of New Jersey's long-standing tradition of ensuring openness and access to government information," he said. "This case is going to be referred to in the future on such issues."

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