‘Asinine’ logic to limit recording at South Stormont meetings: SPJ

The South Stormont municipal office in Long Sault. (Cornwall Newswatch/File)

TUCSON, Ariz. – A spokesman for a journalism advocacy group says a proposal by South Stormont to limit journalists and the public from recording council meetings is bogus.

David Cuillier is the Freedom of Information (FOI) Committee Chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and the Director of the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona.

“I think it’s an outrageous policy. I think it’s counter to everything we value in a democracy. It’s a clear unwarranted infringement on anyone’s right to observe and document public proceedings and their rationale for doing so is bogus, it’s absolutely ludicrous,” Cuillier told Cornwall Newswatch.

During a special meeting Tuesday, South Stormont mulled over a proposed change to its procedural bylaw, which would limit recording equipment and the taking of pictures during regular meetings.

Under the proposal, it would only be allowed if a member of the news media or the public obtained written permission from council, according to the Standard-Freeholder.

According to the paper, Mayor Jim Bancroft said the situation is no different than Upper Canada Playhouse where cameras or recording devices are not allowed.

“To compare a city council meeting to a performance, a concert or play is asinine. They’re two different things. When our elected officials get together to talk about the public’s business we all have a right to attend, watch and record if we wish,” Cuillier said.

“They’re afraid that something they say will be recorded and used against them, well, be careful what they say. Don’t say stupid things,” he said.

The township clerk suggests the change in law would be warranted because the meetings would be recorded and available on the Internet and it would limit distractions such as camera flashes.

But Cuillier says, if the problem is with flashes or the sounds of cameras clicking, those are situations that can be mitigated.

The township’s legal department will be reviewing the proposal.

While not an expert on Canadian law, Cuillier says a move like this in an American municipality would not stand up in court.

“In the United States, this would not fly. This would be challenged immediately…well, they wouldn’t even get to that point because their attorneys would just say ‘This isn’t going to fly, there no use even pushing it,” he said.

“I think they’re clearly in the wrong here and I think the public should not only be outraged but challenge them in court if need be. Regardless of the law, it’s just not right and the citizens of the township should stand up and say, no way! Because this isn’t an infringement on the press per se, this is an infringement on the public’s ability to document their elected officials’ doings.”

The situation isn’t exclusive to South Stormont. Cuillier says in the last 10 to 20 years there’s been a shift by government officials at all levels – local, provincial, state and federal – to control the message and how their image is portrayed.

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