In the Rules of the Missouri State Senate, wedged between a clause permitting laptop use and a sub-heading about handicap access, a policy states that people may be allowed to use cameras, but only with the permission of the hearing chairman.
Progress Missouri, an advocacy organization that frequently records Senate proceedings, was in court this morning to challenge that rule. The policy violates Missouri’s Sunshine Law (which requires government meetings to be open to the public), they argued, because they have been denied access to public meetings on several occasions.
Laura Swinford, Executive Director of Progress Missouri, says that her organization needs access to these hearings, along with cameras, to make them available to the public. “We firmly believe that that’s our Capitol. That belongs to all Missourians, and important issues are discussed in those committee hearings,” she says.
By Swinford’s account, Progress Missouri has had no trouble recording proceedings in the state House of Representatives. The Missouri Senate, she explains, has been another story. Some senators do not grant access, ever, she says; others allow the group to enter, but only without cameras. Another senator denied them access after previously granting it for years. They were told once that they could film, but only if they didn’t use a tripod.
“At a certain point, it becomes unacceptable that they believe they’re above the law. We don’t believe they are,” says Swinford.
The Senate’s policy is that, unless you belong to the Missouri Capitol News Association, you are only entitled to access the videos made by the senate staff. But Progress Missouri can’t belong to the news association because that would require them to give up their lobbying interests; they can't use the news association's videos, either, for the same reason. And the Senate videos also aren’t reliable.
In a Supreme Court hearing this morning, Progress Missouri’s lawyer listed three particular occasions that the Senate provided inadequate video coverage: once, the video was glitchy; on another occasion, it only recorded half of the hearing, and on a third occasion, there was no video made at all.
Under the current policy, the justification for excluding Progress Missouri is that they "prove disruptive." But the activist group's case rests on arguing that they have never been reported as disruptive. Instead, they've been denied access prior to meetings because the Senate is assuming disruption before it happens.
“For us, it’s pretty simple: those are public meetings, it’s a public space,” says Swinford.
But for the justices of the Missouri Supreme Court, it isn't so simple. In oral arguments this morning, they questioned whether they even had jurisdiction over the case. They also questioned whether or not the act of not recording the videos was intentional.
Progress Missouri's lawyer argued that the bottom line is, if the Senate allows some media but not others to record the proceedings, it influences public perception — and not in a good way.