There’s some good news coming out of a court in Massachusetts and it deals with transparency by public officials when dealing with the public. The immediate benefactors of this particular case include James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas and some other folks who routinely tape police on the beat, but it should have implications for the public – and particularly journalists – around the country. The state has had a law on the books since the sixties which banned “taping wire and oral communications with the legislature,” but it had been applied to cover other public officials and even the police. Now some parts of the law appear to be heading for the scrap heap. (Washington Times)
A federal judge ruled Monday that Americans have a right to secretly record their public officials, including police, when they are engaged in their government duties.
U.S. District Chief Judge Patti B. Staris said a Massachusetts law banning secret recordings violates the First Amendment when it comes to government employees, rejecting the state’s claims that officials need some space to be able to operate without having to worry about being monitored.
“This is not to say that police and government officials have no privacy interests,” she wrote. “However, the diminished privacy interests of government officials performing their duties in public must be balanced by the First Amendment interest in newsgathering and information-dissemination.”
My initial reaction was to say that “secret recording” might be going a bit far on the transparency side, but on further reflection, I’ve come to conclude it was a rather silly idea. Perhaps more than most other citizens, public officials are the people who will reflexively act differently when they know a camera is on them. Sometimes surreptitious recording is probably the only way to catch them if they are misbehaving.
Whether it’s elected officials or the police, these efforts at preventing them from being recorded while performing their public duties have never made any sense. They’re doing their jobs and their jobs are paid for by the taxpayers. Unlike some members of the intelligence community, no contact between a cop, mayor or legislator with a member of the public is going to contain information which endangers the nation if it’s revealed.
In almost every case, if public officials don’t want these recordings released it’s because they were up to no good. And if so, the public is entitled to be informed about it. That doesn’t mean we can go record their private meetings in their offices or follow them into their homes. But if you take any of these jobs and go out in public, you should be aware that you’re subject to scrutiny.