When I started TTJ in July 2013, I posted the audio recordings of the Township meetings. I started video recording in November 2014, because video has become an everyday part of our lives and a primary means for communication. I record the meetings so residents can see and hear their committee members as they do the public’s work. This is important for people who can’t attend the meetings and for people who attended but want to review what happened. The recordings help keep residents informed; and that’s critical to a healthy democracy.
The recordings also fill a coverage gap. Although Tabernacle Township records the audio of its meetings (but not the video), it doesn’t post them on its website. It’s not because the Township lacks technical capability. The Township recently upgraded its website and should have plenty of storage and bandwidth to handle these files. In addition, the Committee recently spent $6,300 on a state-of-the-art recording system, which has both audio and video capability. The Committee doesn’t post the recordings of its meetings because it doesn’t want residents to see and hear how they do the public’s business.
Many other townships record their public meetings in audio and/or video and post them on their websites. Tabernacle’s refusal to do this goes against the trend. It’s now commonplace for people to post photos and videos that they’ve taken on their cell phones. The New Jersey Supreme Court explained this back in 2007, in its decision in Tarus v. Borough of Pine Hill:
The plain and simple truth is that in today’s modern world, the state of the art is such that
has become a part of the very fabric of modern life. To foreclose its use where the democratic process is complete, as at a public meeting, would not only be unrealistic but irrational.
Commensurate with the use of video recording in society is its intrinsic value in documenting events. Videotaping is a legitimate way of gathering information for public dissemination and can often provide cogent evidence.
I’ve received many favorable public comments about TTJ’s video recordings. Some are from people who tend to share my point of view. So I’m not surprised that they also share my opinion about the importance of making video recordings publicly available. But other comments have come from people who tend to disagree with me. That tells me that almost everyone wants an honest record of what happens at the Township Committee meetings so they can see it and hear it for themselves.
When I video record, I’m unobtrusive. The camera is on a tripod in a back corner and focused on the Committee in the front. I don’t move the tripod during meetings. I don’t change the camera angle either, unless there’s a special presentation elsewhere in the room. I don’t zoom in or pan across the room during meetings. The camera is silent. It doesn’t need any special lighting. I don’t block any aisles or use any electric outlets.
When I post the video, I use the unedited footage so that the video is plain and non-partisan. I’ve never received any comments that the recording process was distracting or the recordings were biased; not even from Committee members whose policies I criticize from time to time.
But not everybody likes my video recordings. One person, Jason Litowitz, has complained. Initially, he complained that he was being filmed from behind. This can’t be helped. The Committee requires that people who make public comment come to the front and stand beneath the microphone. If I was to video public comment from the front, I’d be recording the backs of the Committee members. That would defeat the whole purpose of recording the Committee. And it would be distracting to everyone.
Mr. Litowitz also complained that he didn’t want his infant to be video recorded. This came up at the October 26, 2015 meeting when he wanted to make public comments while he held his infant. Instead of commenting from the Committee’s designated spot in the front of the room, he moved to the back. When I turned the camera to record him, he moved to within inches of the lens to block the camera, causing a disturbance, all the while carrying his infant.
Mr. Litowitz later told me that he filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that I’ve violated COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), a law that applies to commercial websites. (TTJ isn’t a commercial website.) I’ve also been advised by YouTube that someone filed a complaint about my “content.” YouTube has over 250,000 videos of other government meetings on its website. I would expect that my videos are as appropriate as any of these.
There are easy ways for parents to participate in public meetings while keeping their children out of the video recording. Mr. Litowitz could’ve kept the baby in its portable carrier, as he often does. He could’ve let friends or family hold the baby while he spoke. This too is a common practice. He could’ve left the baby at home with family. The disturbance he caused by placing the baby at the center of his public comment seemed designed to create a controversy where none existed before.
Public comments are an integral part of all public meetings. The ability to video record the meetings – including the public comment- is both a First Amendment right and a common law right protected by New Jersey law. A citizen who makes public comments can’t expect privacy. The New Jersey Supreme Court said this in Tarus v. Borough of Pine Hill. “…no right of privacy protects a citizen’s public comments” [emphasis added]. Mr. Litowitz should know this because he’s a licensed attorney.
The right to video a public meeting can be regulated to ensure that video recording isn’t a distraction and is orderly. My recording already meets this standard. No one has ever complained that it doesn’t. Mr. Litowitz’s refusal to follow the Committee’s public comment rules and his decision to not use other options available to him caused an unfortunate and unnecessary disruption.
I will continue to video record Tabernacle Township meetings in a reasonable and unobtrusive manner and post them on TTJ.