Documentary Filmmaker Arrested At Congressional Hearing For Filming With A Different Opinion
from the first-amendment-anyone? dept
In a rather troubling move, it appears that the leadership of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment had a documentary filmmaker arrested on Congressional property for daring to try to film a hearing that was taking place on the subject of “fracking” — an issue for which this filmmaker, Josh Fox, is well known for covering in his documentary Gasland. As far as I can tell, it appears the reason for his arrest was that he was “filmmaking with a different opinion than subcommittee Chair Andy Harris.” As the article linked above (by Zach Carter at HuffPo) details, it isn’t just common, but pretty much standard, that journalists are allowed to film any open Congressional hearings.
“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. A couple of times staff said, ‘You’re getting in the way, don’t stand there,’ but other than that, I do not ever recall anything like this. We certainly never turned anyone away for not providing 24 hours’ notice.”
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.”
On top of that, even if you want to stick to the letter of the rules, and say that since he didn’t have approval he shouldn’t have been allowed, that still doesn’t excuse the arrest. They could have simply confiscated the camera, or even simply checked to see if he could obtain a temporary permit:
Temporary passes are easy to obtain, and if Republicans had objected on procedural grounds, they could have simply sent the crew to the front desk, rather than ordering police to arrest journalists.
And, of course, now this is raising some serious First Amendment issues. Considering that pretty much everyone else has been allowed to film, and the only times that people are rejected are if there are too many cameras (not so in this case), it appears that the only reason that Fox was arrested was because his opinion was different from that of the subcommittee chair. And that’s where the First Amendment issue comes in. If the reason for his arrest was based on his viewpoint, rather than his actions, then that’s an almost certain First Amendment issue — and since the only thing different in Fox’s situation compared to most others’ situations is his opinion… then this action likely trips that First Amendment wire.
But here’s the really crazy thing: I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how this move made any sense to Rep. Harris. If he had allowed the filming to go on, it would have been a non-story, and most people wouldn’t have heard about this hearing or paid any attention to the issue at all. But by having the guy arrested, he’s now called much more attention to the issue, guaranteeing that it becomes a news story that lives on for a while… and it does absolutely nothing to stop what happened in the hearing from appearing in a later documentary by Fox. That’s because C-SPAN still filmed the whole thing… So all Rep. Harris did was give a lot more attention to a guy whose viewpoints he opposed.
For what it’s worth, we’ve chided Fox in the past as well, for abusing the DMCA to take down videos he had no copyright over, to try to hide the speech of critics. He’s certainly no free speech hero himself. But that hardly means that we should encourage his own free speech rights to be taken away. In the meantime, since much of the coverage here makes this into a “Republicans vs. Democrats” issue, one also has to wonder about Rep. Darrell Issa’s view on the whole thing. While it was his party that had Fox arrested, he’s been a champion of much more openness and transparency with recordings of Congressional hearings.
It seems that whether you agree with Fox or not, it’s simply ridiculous (and potentially against the law) to have had him arrested merely for seeking to film the hearing in question.