Monday, February 6, 2012

House Republicans: Frack Transparency

Let's jump right in with some coverage from the Huffington Post.
"WASHINGTON -- In a stunning break with First Amendment policy, House Republicans directed Capitol Hill police to detain a highly regarded documentary crew that was attempting to film a Wednesday hearing on a controversial natural gas procurement practice [called fracking]."
In my naivety, I had always assumed that these hearings were public. I know they occasionally invoke "National Security," but that's the exception to the rule. It's called "The People's House," after all. Why should our employees have any authority to keep us from watching over their shoulder? That's the whole reason for CSPAN's existence, when you get right down to it.

Who's afraid of a camera, after all? It's not like it throws lumps of lead around the room at deadly and earsplitting velocities, or sends electric shocks through the people in the viewfinder, or causes them to cough and gag as their eyes water. It's a benign and passive device. But that's apparently not the viewpoint of our legislators.

"Fox apparently had applied for credentialing the day before the hearing but had been unable to obtain official permission to film. He had asked a credentialed film crew to tape the proceedings on his behalf but was informed that this was not permitted."
Credentials? You need a permit to carry a camera in the House of Representatives? That seems pretty ridiculous to me, but maybe he just didn't try hard enough to get the appropriate piece of paper that proved he had a right to open-carry a camera.
"Fox had hoped to film Wednesday's hearing for a follow-up to 'Gasland.' Fox told HuffPost later Wednesday evening, 'We did get his staff on the phone, they never returned the phone call,' referring to staffers for Chairman Harris.

"'This is not transparency. This is a lockout and it's bad. It's the people's House, after all. We went through the proper channels to arrange to tape this hearing. We have taped congressional hearings before and we've been turned down before, but I disagree with the policy. Anyone who says they're a journalist is a journalist. It's called the First Amendment. It's the freedom of the press, and that is fundamental to our core identity as the United States of America.'"
So as a member of "The People," you're allowed to observe, if you want to take off work, use your meager vacation time, travel to Washington, DC on your own dime, pay the outrageous rates for food and lodging, and put up with being searched like a common criminal so you can watch your employees do the job they were hired to do. But if documenting these hearings for people who can't go through all that is part of your actual job, or you bring your Kodak Instamatic along, then there's a problem. The article goes on to explain that issue.
"Hearings are open to the public, and any citizen can attend. Regulations only govern the use of cameras. Even under an extreme adherence to the rules, Fox's camera could have been confiscated or disabled without subjecting him to arrest. And while Fox did not have formal Capitol Hill credentials, such formalities are rarely enforced against high-profile journalists."
Rarely enforced? Are they sure about that? It sounds like an effective way to keep a lid on things to me. Just deny the permit, and those damn cameras are no longer a threat. But the author backs it up with statements from a number of Democrats and an ACLU representative.
"'I was chair of the Subcommittee for four years, and we frequently had people show up the day of a hearing to film,' Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) told HuffPost. 'We asked for their name, but they were told if they would not disrupt the hearing, they were free to record.'

"'It's an outrageous violation of the First Amendment,' Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) told HuffPost. 'Here we've got an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, and it's an important subject and the subject that he did his prior film on for HBO. And they put him in handcuffs and hauled him out of there. This is stunning.'

"'I found it ironic that there was not a flood of cameras there,' noted Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.). 'There was the one camera and then before that, the ABC camera ... if you have a camera there to bring the issue home to the public, that's a good thing.'

"Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost, 'I have served in the House of Representatives since 1992, and I had the privilege of chairing the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. In all that time, I cannot recall a chair of any committee or subcommittee having ever ordered the removal of a person who was filming a committee proceeding and not being disruptive, whether or not that person was accredited. It is a matter of routine that all sorts of people photograph and record our proceedings. Most of them are not accredited. I cannot recall anyone questioning their right to be there.'

"Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU in Washington, explained that 'congressional committees routinely allow professional journalists to record hearings even when they don't have official press credentials, and excluding a journalist because he doesn't share the political views of the committee chair is outrageous. The Supreme Court has explained many times that censorship based on viewpoint is the clearest kind of First Amendment violation, and that seems to be what happened here.'"
A former chair of the same committee, three other House members, and the legal director of the ACLU in Washington all agree that it's standard practice to allow cameras in the room during hearings, even in the absence of credentials. Not to mention that CSPAN was already broadcasting the hearing that Fox was told he could not film. And then there's that pesky First Amendment that keeps popping up.

Conclusion

I guess it only stands to reason that if you need a permit to exercise your Second Amendment right, you need a permit to exercise your First Amendment right too. Maybe they should institute "camera permits," and only grant them to people of good standing in the community who have never given the establishment any problems.

Or maybe it should be legal to carry a camera anywhere on public property at any time, for any reason. I don't see how anything else translates to "freedom of the press."

Growing up, we made fun of the USSR for its "officially-approved" press organs. How much better to acknowledge that people have the right to write whatever they wish, and just prevent them from documenting the facts at issue. It's just access to the lawmakers that can be restricted by the lawmakers, not access to the printing press, so what's the big deal, right?

And weren't we promised more transparency if we elected "Hope and Change?" Where's President Obama's outrage over this partisan censorship of the press?

I remember when I was younger and it became harder and harder to legally have a gun in your possession, particularly in public. Gun owners were fond of saying "If this was about the First Amendment instead of the Second, the press would be all over it."

Given the relatively small amount of coverage this story has gotten, I guess the gun owners were wrong to make such outrageous claims.


...and that's all I have to say about that.

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