“Press” vs. Public: Does It Matter? Yes, In The Minnesota House

March 18, 2009

A showdown is brewing between the Minnesota House of Representatives and nontraditional media regarding who gets to record House proceedings.  And if this goes to court, the case could be groundbreaking for helping to determine who is the “press” and who is the “public,” and does it (or should it) really matter anymore?

Here’s the deal.  The House is assigning authority to its “Sergeant At Arms” to determine who gets to make audio and video recordings anywhere our elected House members do “business.”  This would include not only the House chamber, but also committee rooms, and arguably, I would think, “press conferences” and anyplace an elected House member shows her or his face.

A copy of the “application” is here.  Predicably, it requires applicants to identify their employer, whether they’re a member of a recognized journalism group or association, and the “long-term nature of your assignment.”  In other words, it licenses existing and largely “mainstream” media.  Also, stunningly, it imposes a prior restraint by banning applicants from “videotaping audience members.”

The reason behind all this?  For the “safety and security of all.”  Really?  How in the world does restricting audio and video recordings in a publicly accessible place affect safety and security?

The current and evolving generation of citizens journalists are understandably going nuts over this.  My buddy Jason Barnett at The UpTake is helping to lead the charge.  He talked about it on Channel 4 recently, but at a time when most Minnesotans are either in church, at brunch, or sleeping in.  (Channel 4 video here.)

Consume The UpTake’s coverage and read their take on the issue here.  They’re right on point.

So what precisely are our elected representatives scared of?  It is not at all clear, and the purported concerns over “safety” and “security” are wholly speculative.  Warning: Time and time again, courts have invalidated laws based on speculative fears when, as here, freedom of expression is at issue.

This appears to be yet another attempt by Minnesota officials to restrain expression in the name of keeping order and upholding morals.  These were the reasons behind our Legislature’s nineteenth century ban on newspapers publishing true details of public executions, its World War I-era laws targeted at anti-war protesters, and the horrible Public Nuisance Law of 1925 that authorized the state to shut down “nuisance” newspapers.  Amazingly, it was the Public Nuisance Law and the Minnesota Supreme Court’s refusal to invalidate it that finally led the United States Supreme Court to say in Near v. Minnesota that enough was enough, that the First Amendment applied not only to the federal government but also to the states.

Think our state is a place where everyone is above average when it comes to free expression?  Think again.  Near v. Minnesota is the reason why we have freedom of expression (not just freedom of the press) from coast to coast.  In the words of a Lutheran confirmation student, this is most certainly true.

Is Minnesota on the cusp of another legal revolution, one that would be expensive for state taxpayers?  Stay tuned.


One Response to ““Press” vs. Public: Does It Matter? Yes, In The Minnesota House”

  1. […] 2009, the House of Representatives also attempted to ban the videotaping of audience members in the House chambers – a ban that raised the ire of the traditional […]

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