OML-AO-3749 January 27, 2004
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your note and the article indicating that the Town of Hyde Park Supervisor, in the words of the article, "wants to pull the plug on television broadcasts of town board workshops - - as well as the first two voting meetings of 2004." The article indicates that the Supervisor "said the informality of the twice-monthly workshops, which are conducive for discussing various issues and proposals, is lost when the camera is running."
From my perspective, which is based on the holdings in judicial determinations, any person may audio or video record an open meeting of a public body, such as a town board, so long as the use of the recording device is not disruptive or obtrusive. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Open Meetings Law clearly applies to the workshops described in the article. By way of background, it is noted that the definition of "meeting" has been broadly interpreted by the courts. In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, found that any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business is a "meeting" that must be convened open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to take action and regardless of the manner in which a gathering may be characterized [see Orange County Publications v. Council of the City of Newburgh, 60 AD 2d 409, aff'd 45 NY 2d 947 (1978)].
I point out that the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals was precipitated by contentions made by public bodies that so-called "work sessions" and similar gatherings held for the purpose of discussion, but without an intent to take action, fell outside the scope of the Open Meetings Law. In discussing the issue, the Appellate Division, whose determination was unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals, stated that:
"We believe that the Legislature intended to include more than the mere formal act of voting or the formal execution of an official document. Every step of the decision-making process, including the decision itself, is a necessary preliminary to formal action. Formal acts have always been matters of public record and the public has always been made aware of how its officials have voted on an issue. There would be no need for this law if this was all the Legislature intended. Obviously, every thought, as well as every affirmative act of a public official as it relates to and is within the scope of one's official duties is a matter of public concern. It is the entire decision-making process that the Legislature intended to affect by the enactment of this statute" (60 AD 2d 409, 415).
The court also dealt with the characterization of meetings as "informal," stating that:
"The word 'formal' is defined merely as 'following or according with established form, custom, or rule' (Webster's Third New Int. Dictionary). We believe that it was inserted to safeguard the rights of members of a public body to engage in ordinary social transactions, but not to permit the use of this safeguard as a vehicle by which it precludes the application of the law to gatherings which have as their true purpose the discussion of the business of a public body" (id.).
Based upon the direction given by the courts, if a majority of a public body gathers to discuss public business, any such gathering, in my opinion, would ordinarily constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. Since a workshop held by a majority of a public body is a "meeting", it is subject to the Open Meetings Law in all respects.
Second, there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that pertains to the ability to record meetings, and until 1978, there had been but one judicial determination regarding the use of the recording devices at meetings of public bodies. The only case on the subject was Davidson v. Common Council of the City of White Plains, 244 NYS 2d 385, which was decided in 1963. In short, the court in Davidson found that the presence of a tape recorder, which at that time was a large, conspicuous machine, might detract from the deliberative process. Therefore, it was held that a public body could adopt rules generally prohibiting the use of tape recorders at open meetings.
Notwithstanding Davidson, however, the Committee advised that the use of tape recorders should not be prohibited in situations in which the devices are unobtrusive, for the presence of such devices would not detract from the deliberative process. In the Committee's view, a rule prohibiting the use of unobtrusive tape recording devices would not be reasonable if the presence of such devices would not detract from the deliberative process.
This contention was initially confirmed in a decision rendered in 1979. That case arose when two individuals sought to bring their tape recorders at a meeting of a school board in Suffolk County. The school board refused permission and in fact complained to local law enforcement authorities who arrested the two individuals. In determining the issues, the court in People v. Ystueta, 418 NYS 2d 508, cited the Davidson decision, but found that the Davidson case:
"was decided in 1963, some fifteen (15) years before the legislative passage of the 'Open Meetings Law', and before the widespread use of hand held cassette recorders which can be operated by individuals without interference with public proceedings or the legislative process. While this court has had the advantage of hindsight, it would have required great foresight on the part of the court in Davidson to foresee the opening of many legislative halls and courtrooms to television cameras and the news media, in general. Much has happened over the past two decades to alter the manner in which governments and their agencies conduct their public business. The need today appears to be truth in government and the restoration of public confidence and not 'to prevent star chamber proceedings'...In the wake of Watergate and its aftermath, the prevention of star chamber proceedings does not appear to be lofty enough an ideal for a legislative body; and the legislature seems to have recognized as much when it passed the Open Meetings Law, embodying principles which in 1963 was the dream of a few, and unthinkable by the majority"(id., 509-510; emphasis mine).
Several years later, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed a decision which annulled a resolution adopted by a board of education prohibiting the use of tape recorders at its meetings and directed the board to permit the public to tape record public meetings of the board [Mitchell v. Board of Education of Garden City School District, 113 AD 2d 924 (1985)]. In so holding, the Court stated that:
"While Education Law sec. 1709(1) authorizes a board of education to adopt by-laws and rules for its government and operations, this authority is not unbridled. Irrational and unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned. Moreover, Public Officers Law sec. 107(1) specifically provides that 'the court shall have the power, in its discretion, upon good cause shown, to declare any action *** taken in violation of [the Open Meetings Law], void in whole or in part.' Because we find that a prohibition against the use of unobtrusive recording goal of a fully informed citizenry, we accordingly affirm the judgement annulling the resolution of the respondent board of education" (id. at 925).
In consideration of the "obtrusiveness" or distraction caused by the presence of a tape recorder, it was determined by the Court that " the unsupervised recording of public comment by portable , hand-held tape recorders is not obtrusive, and will not distract from the true deliberative process" (id., 925). Further, the Court found that the comments of members of the public, as well as public officials, may be recorded. As stated in Mitchell:
"[t]hose who attend such meetings, who decide to freely speak out and voice their opinions, fully realize that their comments and remarks are being made in a public forum. The argument that members of the public should be protected from the use of their words, and that they have some sort of privacy interest in their own comments, is therefore wholly specious" (id.).
In short, the nature and use of the equipment were the factors considered by the Court in determining whether its presence affected the deliberative process, not the privacy or sensibilities of those who chose to speak.
In view of the judicial determination rendered by the Appellate Division, a member of the public may tape record open meetings of public bodies, so long as tape recording is carried out unobtrusively and in a manner that does not detract from the deliberative process. While Mitchell pertained to the use of audio tape recorders, I believe that the same points as those offered by the Court would be applicable in the context of the use of video recorders. Just as the words of members of the public can be heard at open meetings, those persons can also been seen by anyone who attends.
In Peloquin v. Arsenault, 616 NYS 2d 716 (1994), the court focused primarily on the manner in which camera equipment is physically used and found that the unobtrusive use of cameras at open meetings could not be prohibited by means of a "blanket ban." The Court expansively discussed the notion of what may be "obtrusive" and referred to the Mitchell holding and quoted from an opinion rendered by this office as follows:
"On August 26, 1986 the Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government opined (OML-AO-1317, p.3) with respect to video recording as follows:
‘If the equipment is large, if special lighting is needed, and if it is obtrusive and distracting, I believe that a rule prohibiting its use under those circumstances would be reasonable. However, if advances in technology permit video equipment to be used without special lighting, in a stationary location and in an unobtrusive manner, it is questionable in my view whether a prohibition under those circumstances would be reasonable.’
On April 1, 1994, Mr. Freeman further opined (OML-AO-2324) that a county legislature’s resolution limiting hand held camcorders to the spectator area in the rear of the legislative chamber was not per se unreasonable but rather, as challenged, it depended for its legitimacy on whether or not the camcorders could actually record the proceedings from that location.
Blanket prohibition of audio recording is not permissible, and it is likely that the appellate courts would find that also to be the case with blanket prohibitions of video recording. However, what might be reasonable in one physical setting - a village board restricting camcording to the rear area of its meeting room - might not be in another - the larger chambers of a county legislature (OML-AO-1317, supra). It might well be reasonable in a village or other space-restricted setting to restrict the number of camcorders to one, as the court system may with its pooling requirement for video coverage of trials (22 NYCRR Parts 22 and 131). Such a requirement might be viewed as unreasonable in a large county legislative chamber or where a local board of education is conducting a meeting in a school auditorium.
As Mr. Freeman observed with respect to video recording (OML-AO-1317, supra), if it is ‘obtrusive and distracting’, a ban on it is not unreasonable. It is here claimed to be distracting. Tupper Lake Village Board members and some segment of the public aver that they are distracted from the business at hand because they do not wish to appear on television - the sole justification offered in defense of the policy.
Mitchell, supra, held that fear of public airing of one’s comments at a public meeting is insufficient to sustain a ban on audio recording.
Is Mr. Peloquin’s (or anyone’s else’s) video recording of a village board proceedings obtrusive?...
"...Hand held audio recorders are unobtrusive (Mitchell, supra); camcorders may or may not be depending, as we have seen, on the circumstances. Suffice it to say, however, in the face of Mitchell, the Committee on Open Government’s (Robert Freeman’s) well-reasoned opinions supra and the court system’s pooled video coverage rules/options, a blanket ban on all cameras and camcorders when the sole justification is a distaste for appearing on public access cable television is unreasonable. While "distraction" and "unobtrusive" are subjective terms, in the face of the virtual presumption of openness contained in Article 7 of the Public Officers law and the insufficient justification offered by the Village, the ‘Recording Policy’ in issue here must fall" (id., 717, 718; emphasis added by the court).
From my perspective, since the basis for the denial of the use of video recording devices in Peloquin, "distaste for appearing on public access television", is analogous to the basis of the proposed action, that action would, if implemented, be found by a court to be equally unreasonable and void.
I note that the foregoing as it pertains to the use of a video recorder was cited favorably in a more recent decision of the Appellate Division, Csorny v. Shoreham-Wading River Central School District, 305 AD2d 83 (2003).
In an effort to enhance their understanding of the issue, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to the Town Board.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Town Board