A battle is brewing over open government in Phillipsburg, N.J.
A proposed new law would severely limit who can videotape town council meetings. Although Phillipsburg's mayor said he's just trying to keep order and protect people's privacy, journalism groups said the move raises troubling free speech questions.
Right now, you can go online and watch the moments just before a Phillipsburg Town Council meeting. But that could soon change. It's one of several things that you -- and we -- would no longer be able to videotape.
"It is the public meeting and only the public meeting that is to be recorded or to be videotaped," said Mayor Harry Wyant (R - Phillipsburg).
The new rules would ban more than two cameras inside council meetings; those cameras would also have to stay in the back of the room.
No recordings would be allowed before or after the meeting. And most restrictive? No one sitting in the audience could be videotaped -- only council members themselves.
"I believe it's a violation of freedom of speech," said blogger Blaine Fehley.
Fahley's website, "Phillipsburg Raw," is often critical of town government. He believes the ordinance is targeted at him.
"If big government can do it -- CSPAN, MSN can do it -- why can't I?", he asked.
Wyant said the law simply protects people's privacy and prevents camera operators from disrupting meetings.
"You've had videographers come in and tape, prior to the meeting, conversations of individuals in the audience -- personal conversations," he said.
John Ensslin, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a New Jersey-based reporter, believes some of the rules make sense. He said others, though, raise serious First Amendment concerns.
"The restriction on panning the audience is clearly a violation of reporters' ability to record what is happening in a room," he said. "I can't tell you how many times I've shot video where the audience was the story."
69 News asked Wyant, "Do you have any concerns whatsoever that this is unconstitutional?"
He replied: "No, there's case law [to back us up]."
The ordinance originally went a step further. It would have forced media outlets to stop recording any citizen who came up to speak if they didn't want to be on television.
Ensslin said numerous cities and towns are now passing camera restrictions, as more citizens attempt to videotape meetings. Earlier this year, media groups defeated an ordinance in Bogota, N.J., that required people to give advance notice of videotaping and post a $1 million insurance bond to cover possible injuries.
Phillipsburg's ordinance got preliminary approval Tuesday night. Council will take a final vote on August 21.