Let the Sunshine In

Sorry (not sorry) if it’s a pain in the neck, but recording public meetings is in everyone’s best interest. 

Happens all the time: we’ll be quietly recording community proceedings when an audience member suddenly spots our camera. First comes the glaring. Then the dirty looks and maybe some gesturing/mouthing to the effect of “Stop right now! You don’t have my permission!”

Umm, actually… we don’t need it.

I know, I know. Everyone’s familiar with “release forms” that you’re asked to sign whenever a photographer or TV station wants to use your image. But then, we’re also aware of how the paparazzi can chase celebrities around and take pics of them (and their kids!) whenever they’re in public. Angelina Jolie certainly isn’t signing a release to let US Magazine use that pic of her pumping gas in sweatpants.

So here’s the deal: in Pennsylvania, media releases are basically a corporate formality and not a legal requirement for photographers taking pictures in public, where there is “no expectation of privacy.” In private places, like Franklin’s Pub and First Presby, the property owners decide whether or not to allow photography. However, when these establishments are used by local government to host public meetings, the law allows for recording under the Sunshine Act of 1987:

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. §§ 701-716, requires agencies to deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting. It requires that meetings have prior notice, and that the public can attend, participate, and comment before an agency takes that official action.

The act specifically permits audio and video recording. Agencies can make “reasonable rules” to avoid disruptions, but such rules “can’t be an attempt to prevent a member of the public from recording a meeting.”

But isn’t it only common courtesy to ask permission first? We get that a lot – as if documenting important meetings should be a democratic decision. Look, our local councils and organizations might seem dinky compared to City/State/National politics, but it’s exactly these neighborhood-level entities that have the most immediate impact on our lives. Sorry if you’re camera-shy, but someone needs to be watching.

At the Local, our meeting recaps are full of commentary and opinion. But we also share video, so people who couldn’t make or didn’t hear about meetings can see for themselves what went down. The camera can’t lie or exaggerate. It is objective documentation we can all use to better keep track of the organizations who feel they are serving us, and our neighbors who may be speaking for us.

Even when the Sunshine Act does not technically apply – for instance, with Community Development Organizations that are private non-profits  – a policy of full transparency seems only fair and ethical. It also builds trust and good will, helps quash any pesky rumors dogging certain projects, strengthens fundraising and volunteer bases. Frankly, it’s hard to think of a downside to transparency for any organized group working on behalf of the whole community.

Cheers for the Sunshine Act! Next time you catch us out with our cameras, please remember: video documentation is a free public service for community education and empowerment. Signup for our newsletter (in the sidebar on every page) for the latest meeting recaps with video you can also see on Youtube.

And remember — you have nothing to fear. Camera’s don’t bite! And the best part is, you are in total control of how you appear on camera. It’s a fact: you’ll only look stupid on video if you act stupid in public. So be cool and you have nothing to worry about, right?


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