Court revokes right to tape official forums

Town council visitor loses suit

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Star-Ledger Staff

Taking back a right the public has had for 21 years, a state appeals court ruled yesterday the New Jersey Constitution does not protect citizens who videotape open government meetings.

The three-judge court unanimously dismissed a lawsuit by a Camden County man who claimed he was wrongfully arrested for attempting to videotape two borough council meetings in September 2000.

In doing so, the court eviscerated a 1984 appeals court ruling that gave citizens -- in that case, the members of a teachers union -- "the right to videotape the proceedings of the (school) board."

Robert Wayne Tarus said yesterday he was aware of that ruling when he brought his video camera to a meeting of the Pine Hill Borough Council. He said he had seen council members change their stories and wanted an accurate record of their comments.

According to the appellate ruling, Mayor Leslie Gallagher "polled those present and found that several members of the audience did not wish to be videotaped." She repeatedly told Tarus to turn off his camera and he replied they would have to arrest him, which the police chief did, according to the ruling.

The same scenario was repeated a month later and again Tarus was arrested, according to the opinion. After he was acquitted of disorderly conduct, Tarus filed a federal lawsuit, which was dismissed, and then a lawsuit in state court.

Dismissing that lawsuit yesterday, Appellate Division Judge Anthony Parrillo ruled the state constitution protects the right of the public to attend public meetings, not to videotape the proceedings.

"Thus, the right to videotape public proceedings is subject to reasonable governmental restrictions," Parrillo wrote. He characterized Gallagher's order to stop videotaping as "simply an ad hoc means of regulating the manner in which videotaping would occur."

In October 1982, members of the Maurice River Township Teachers Association were told to stop videotaping a school board meeting. After state troopers failed to resolve the dispute, the board members walked out and filed a lawsuit to block the teachers from taping.

Two courts sided with the teachers. A trial judge found citizens have a right to videotape open meetings of governmental bodies and ordered the school board to permit it. A three-judge appeals court upheld that order, adding that video cameras had become so common as security devices that there was no valid argument for banishing them from public meetings.

Yesterday, Parrillo said "no violation of state law" occurred when Tarus was ordered to stop videotaping. Judges John Holston Jr. and William Gilroy joined Parrillo's ruling.

Mine Hill's new mayor, Fred Constantino, said the appeals court ruling "validates the borough's position."

Tarus' lawyer, Thomas Bruno, said he is considering asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to review the case.  




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