September 30, 2005
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.
As you are aware, I have received your letter. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.
You wrote that Barbara Strangfeld, a member of the Schenectady City Council, informed you that I:
"...agreed with the council’s attempts to add ‘structure and order:’ to their meetings/ did you realize that President Blanchfield now demand we must sign in to speak, that we must write down what we plan to say,. And tha [sic] if he feels it is not Council business, he will not call on someone?"
You added that you:
"...may not tape committee meetings, and they are trying to eliminate televised coverage of privilege of the floor, or even the meetings themselves."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, while the Open Meetings Law clearly provides the public with the right "to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy" (see Open Meetings Law, §100), the Law is silent with respect to public participation. Consequently, by means of example, if a public body, such as the City Council, does not want to answer questions or permit the public to speak or otherwise participate at its meetings, I do not believe that it would be obliged to do so. On the other hand, a public body may choose to answer questions and permit public participation, and many do so. When a public body does permit the public to speak, I believe that it should do so based upon reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally.
Although public bodies have the right to adopt rules to govern their own proceedings (see e.g., Education Law, §1709), the courts have found in a variety of contexts that such rules must be reasonable. For example, although a board of education may "adopt by laws and rules for its government and operations", in a case in which a board's rule prohibited the use of tape recorders at its meetings, the Appellate Division found that the rule was unreasonable, stating that the authority to adopt rules "is not unbridled" and that "unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned" [see Mitchell v. Garden City Union Free School District, 113 AD 2d 924, 925 (1985)]. Similarly, if by rule, a public body chose to permit certain citizens to address it for ten minutes while permitting others to address it for three, or not at all, such a rule, in my view, would be unreasonable.
I note that there are federal court decisions indicating that if commentary is permitted within a certain subject area, negative commentary in the same area cannot be prohibited. It has been held by the United States Supreme Court that a school board meeting in which the public may speak is a "limited" public forum, and that limited public fora involve "public property which the State has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity" [Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators’ Association, 460 US 37, 103. S.Ct. 954 (1939); also see Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified School District, 936 F. Supp. 719 (1996)]. In Baca, a federal court invalidated a bylaw that "allows expression of two points of view (laudatory and neutral) while prohibiting a different point of view (negatively critical) on a particular subject matter (District employees’ conduct or performance)" (id., 730). That prohibition "engenders discussion artificially geared toward praising (and maintaining) the status quo, thereby foreclosing meaningful public dialogue and ultimately, dynamic political change" [Leventhal v. Vista Unified School District, 973 F.Supp. 951, 960 (1997)]. In a decision rendered by the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York (1997 WL588876 E.D.N.Y.), Schuloff, v. Murphy, it was stated that:
"In a traditional public forum, like a street or park, the government may enforce a content-based exclusion only if it is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that end. Perry Educ. Ass’n., 460 U.S. at 45. A designated or ‘limited’ public forum is public property ‘that the state has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity.’ Id. So long as the government retains the facility open for speech, it is bound by the same standards that apply to a traditional public forum. Thus, any content-based prohibition must be narrowly drawn to effectuate a compelling state interest. Id. at 46."
In the context of the specific issues that you raised, I believe that a court would determine that a public body may limit the amount of time allotted to person who wishes to speak at a meeting, so long as the limitation is reasonable. Similarly, it is my view that the City Council may limit comments to matters involving City business or the operation of City government and require a brief written summary of the subject intended to be discussed by a person wishing to address the Council.
From my perspective, the President of the Council presides over Council meetings. It is questionable, however, whether he may validly determine unilaterally whether the subject matter of comment proposed by a person desiring to speak involves City Council business. He is but one member of the Council, and I believe that the Council, if necessary, should determine by means of a majority vote of its total membership (see General Construction Law, §41) if there is a question or disagreement regarding whether a subject relates to City Council business. I believe that the Council in that circumstance should determine whether the subject may be raised, rather than the President of the Council reaching a determination alone.
While individuals may have a constitutional right to express themselves and to speak, I do not believe that they necessarily have the right to do so at meetings of public bodies. It is noted that there is no constitutional right to attend meetings of public bodies. Those rights are conferred by statute, i.e., by legislative action, in laws enacted in each of the fifty states. In the absence of a statutory grant of authority to attend such meetings, I do not believe that the public would have the right to attend.
In the case of the New York Open Meetings Law, in a statement of general principle and intent, that statute confers upon the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies, to listen to their deliberations and observe the performance of public officials. Nevertheless, as you are aware, that right is limited, for public bodies in appropriate circumstances may enter into closed or executive sessions. As such, it is reiterated that, in my opinion, there is no constitutional right to attend meetings or to speak at those meetings.
Lastly, with respect to the ability to tape record or video record open meetings, there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that addresses the issue. However, there is a series of decisions pertaining to the use of recording equipment at meetings and in my opinion, they consistently apply certain principles. One is that a public body, such as the City Council, has the ability to adopt reasonable rules concerning its proceedings. The other involves whether the use of the equipment would be disruptive.
By way of background, 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, supra]. 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 policy, that policy would, if adopted, be found by a court to be equally unreasonable and void. The same conclusion was reached more recently in Csorny v. Shoreham-Wading River Central School District [759 NYS 2d 513, 305 AD2d 83 (2003)].
I hope that I have been of assistance.