UPDATED 6:00 P.M.
In case you missed it: The D.C. Taxicab Commission has come under quite a bit of scrutiny in the past 24 hours or so after two reporters — Pete Tucker of thefightback.org and Jim Epstein of Reason TV — were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and illegal “remaining” while attending a commission hearing Wednesday.
Last night, Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s office issued a statement from the commission’s interim chairwoman, Dena C. Reed, saying that she did not order their arrests. But the decision of U.S. Park Police to detain the reporters followed a dispute with Reed and commission staff over whether they were allowed to photograph or otherwise record the proceedings. I asked for the commission’s policy on those matters.
In another statement today, Reed said that the commission has indeed banned videotaping of its proceedings, explaining that the commission has ”found television cameras to be disruptive to meetings” due to factors including “the size of the Commission hearing room, the fact that cameramen must move around and place cameras in the faces of Commissioners and guests and that some attendees have demonstrated a tendency to act in a more disruptive manner when cameras are present.”
The statement also said that Tucker was “defiant and disrespectful of [Reed’s] request and suggestions” to place his microphone somewhere other than in front of her and later “caused some distraction” by moving his microphone between witnesses and commission members.
“In order to get usable audio, you need to be close to the speaker,” Tucker explained today. “The table that she offered was five or 10 yards off to the right. I could put it there, but I don’t think the audio would be worth listening to.”
The statement does not address the immediate cause of his arrest, which Tucker said was his taking a still photograph on his cell phone.
Reason TV today posted video of Tucker’s arrest and the subsequent uproar from the many cab drivers who attended the hearing, on proposed changes to taxi regulations. It includes an account from Epstein on how he was detained after refusing to hand over the cell phone on which he shot the video.
District law is silent on whether or not photography or recordings are permitted during public proceedings. The current open meetings law has been in effect for less than a year, and there has yet to be any litigation on this particular issue. But restrictions on recording meetings of deliberative bodies are, generally speaking, unusual. D.C. Council, for instance, does not restrict audio or videotaping. However, it’s not unheard of for a government body to have such restrictions. Federal courts and many state courts ban photography and recordings of what are otherwise open proceedings.
“[T]he Open Meetings Act does not require that videotaping be allowed in Commission meetings,” Reed rightly notes in her statement. What remains debatable is whether that policy is reasonable, and why audiotaping and photography are similarly objectionable.
Update, 6 p.m.: Gray issued the following statement: “I believe firmly that governments should be as open and transparent as possible with the public, and I remain fully supportive of the District’s Open Meetings Act both in letter and in spirit. My office is inquiring into yesterday’s incident to ensure that Taxicab Commission officials adhered to these standards.
“I will ensure that directors of all the agencies under my purview are clear that I expect them and their agencies’ personnel to treat the public and the media respectfully and in accordance with the dictates of the Open Meetings Act.”
Here is the statement from Reed:
· Pursuant to the Open Meetings Act, DC Code § 1-207.42, all meetings and hearings of the Commission are open to the public and a record is made of all public meetings. Also, a recording or transcript of the proceedings is made available to the public free of charge.
· However, the Open Meetings Act does not require that videotaping be allowed in Commission meetings.
· Because the Commission has, in the past, found television cameras to be disruptive to meetings (due to a number of factors, including the size of the Commission hearing room, the fact that cameramen must move around and place cameras in the faces of Commissioners and guests and that some attendees have demonstrated a tendency to act in a more disruptive manner when cameras are present), they have instituted a policy of not allowing video recordings in Commission meetings.
· The Commission does not search people and take away their cell-phone cameras, but if they begin using them, Commission officials remind them that videotaping in not permitted.
· Mr. Tucker was aware of these policies going into yesterday’s meeting.
As it relates to any audio recording issues Mr. Tucker claims to have had:
· As the meeting started Mr. Tucker became upset because Interim Chairperson Reed would not allow him to put his microphone on the main podium where the Commissioners sat. He insisted he had a right to put his mic wherever he wanted because it was a public meeting.
· Ms. Reed reminded him repeatedly that the meeting was open to anyone and that anyone could make an audio recording of the meeting if they wanted, but he could not place his mic on the podium. Instead, she told him he could place it on the side table with other microphones with the court reporter.
· Mr. Tucker repeatedly placed his microphone on the podium, and Ms. Reed repeatedly moved it to the side table.
· This behavior was disruptive from the start of the meeting, and Ms. Reed called the U.S. Park Police facility commander to address him, since he remained defiant and disrespectful of her request and suggestions.
· Ms. Reed, with the Park Police, again offered to let Mr. Tucker choose between placing his mic on the side table with other mics or to hold it as he sat on the front row of seats. He chose to sit on the floor in front of the podium.
· As other speakers (including blind patrons with service animals) came to the floor microphones to speak, Mr. Tucker repeatedly got up and down, placing his hand-held microphone in their personal space to record their comments. While this caused some distraction, the meeting proceeded.
· The Commission is fully supportive of the Open Meetings Act, but open meetings must still be conducted in an orderly and productive fashion.
· The Commission is interested in hearing all points of view on taxicab-related issues, and welcomes comment from all who choose to conduct themselves with the decorum and respect for others befitting a public meeting.
· Ultimately, Mr. Tucker was not detained for videotaping, but as a result of his disorderly conduct with the U.S. Park Police. DCTC did not have him arrested.