|Legal Opinion: |
Text of Document: Your question of this morning is whether the City Council may ban, by ordinance, the public from bringing into and videoing city council meetings. You indicated that you believed you had read several years ago in a Tennessee Town and City article that such an ordinance would be valid. As we discussed on the telephone, it was my opinion that such an ordinance would not be defensible, and after researching this issue, I am confirming my prior conclusion.
While the it appears that under a First Amendment analysis, the proposed ordinance, which seeks to restrict a type of access to a public meeting, might withstand judicial scrutiny, it is important to note that this question and factual scenario have not been addressed by the Tennessee Supreme Court or any federal appeals courts, to my knowledge. On the other hand, the Tennessee Attorney General, in addressing your question as applicable to another Tennessee municipality, has opined that a blanket ban on bringing video or photographic equipment into an official city council meeting would violate Article 1, Section 19 of the Tennessee Constitution, as applied to the Open Meeting Act, T.C.A. §§ 8-44-101 et. seq. Op. Tenn. Atty. Gen. 95-126 (December 28, 1995). [Note that this opinion overruled a portion of a previous opinion from that office on the same subject].
The dispositive analysis in this response centers around the premise that governmental bodies only may regulate access to their public meetings in ways that reasonably advance or protect public safety and welfare. In the case of Peloquin v. Arsenault, 616 N.Y.S.2d (N.Y.Sup.Ct. 1994), the New York Court struck down a ban on all cameras and camcorders in council meetings when the sole justification offered was that certain board members and members of the public found it personally distracting to be videoed. While Court noted that the board could restrict video recording that clearly was “obtrusive and distracting,” the Court found the justification proffered was insufficient.
In another case, Mitchell v. Board of Education of Garden City School District, 493 N.Y.S.2d 826 (N.Y. App. Div. 1985), the Court held that a ban on tape recorders was too restrictive in view of the legislative scheme embodied in the Open Meetings Law. The Court noted that it was appropriate to have rules governing the decorum of meetings, however, such rules could not be irrational or unreasonable.
In summary, a complete ban on the use of video cameras in official city council meetings would probably not withstand judicial scrutiny. The council may make reasonable rules regarding taping of meetings, perhaps placing a limitation on the amount of cameras allowed in the room and where they should be located, etc. I am enclosing a copy of the Opinion from the Attorney General for your files.