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Right to attend public meetings does not include right to videotape

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  1. Freedom of Information
    NMU         THIRD CIRCUIT    

    NMU         THIRD CIRCUIT         Freedom of Information         Oct 14, 1999    

Right to attend public meetings does not include right to videotape

  • A federal appellate court denied a developer’s suit over its attempts to videotape planning commission meetings

While a person may have a right under the Pennsylvania and United States constitutions to attend public meetings, there is no right to videotape the same meetings, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) ruled in late September.

The decision stemmed from a situation in which a real estate developer had been denied the right to videotape a township board meeting.

The appellate panel pointed to the well-recognized proposition that while a person has a right under the First Amendment to receive information, that right is not absolute. It cited valid time, place, and manner restrictions and a judge’s ability to limit access to criminal trials as examples of this limited right.

Just because Pennsylvania’s open meetings law may allow meetings to be videotaped does not mean the federal constitution requires it, the panel said.

“The First Amendment does not require states to accommodate every potential method of recording its proceedings, particularly where the public is granted alternative means of compiling a comprehensive record,” Judge Anthony Scirica wrote for the panel.

On Sept. 25, 1996, representatives from the Whiteland Woods development company appeared before the West Whiteland Planning Commission, which was hearing the company’s application for a 162.5 acre residential development. They came with a video camera, causing the commission members to propose a resolution that would ban videotaping of board proceedings in the future.

The president of the planning commission “explained that videotaping would inhibit candid discussion by town residents. Other members of the planning commission expressed resentment at being videotaped and stated that videotaping could be intimidating,” according to the appellate panel.

Despite statement’s from Whiteland Woods’ representatives that such a ban appeared to violate the state’s open meetings law, the resolution passed. The township’s board of supervisors passed a similar ban soon thereafter. While the real estate firm was allowed to film the Sept. 25 meeting, it was not allowed to videotape subsequent meetings of the planning commission.

On Oct. 14, 1996, the real estate firm filed suit in a state trial court in West Chester, Pa., alleging that the ban violated the state open meetings law and seeking an injunction against its enforcement. With state courts previously recognizing a right to videotape government meetings, the township decided not to challenge the request for an injunction.

When the real estate firm later claimed its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated by the township’s ban and that it was seeking $2.1 million in damages, the case was removed to a federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The District Court dismissed the case, and that dismissal then was appealed the federal appellate court in Philadelphia.

(Whiteland Woods v. Township of West Whiteland)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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