N.J. court: Public can videotape meetings. Town erred in arrest of gadfly, justices say

N.J. court: Public can videotape meetings
Town erred in arrest of gadfly, justices say

March 08, 2007 Star-Ledger

Video cameras today are like the quill pens used hundreds of years ago to chronicle the actions of government, and New Jersey residents have a common-law right to use them to record public meetings, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

While it said governmental agencies can impose "reasonable guidelines" to make sure the recording does not disrupt their official business, the high court unanimously ruled in favor of Robert Wayne Tarus, a gadfly from Camden County who was arrested after he tried to videotape two Pine Hill Borough Council meetings in 2000.

The justices found the Pine Hill mayor was "arbitrary and unreasonable" in ordering the police chief to arrest Tarus -- a longtime critic of the mayor and council --because the borough had never adopted formal guidelines for videotaping public meetings.

"For any town that wants to rule with an iron fist, this puts them all on notice they can no longer do that and reaffirms the protection for every resident in the state of New Jersey," said Tarus, who works as a trucking company manager. "Knowledge is power and any time anyone wants to cut the flow of information or squeeze it, it should be looked at."

Chief Justice James Zazzali, writing for the court, said the court's decision should encourage "citizens of a democracy to be more engaged, rather than less," in part from an "understanding that openness reduces public corruption."

"Openness is a hallmark of democracy -- a sacred maxim of our government -- and video is but a modern instrument in that evolving pursuit," Zazzali wrote. "The use of modern technology to record and review the activities of public bodies should marshal pride in our open system of government, not muster suspicion against citizens who conduct the recording."

Still, the court found, the right to videotape meetings is "neither absolute nor unqualified" and public bodies "may impose reasonable guidelines to ensure that the recording of meetings does not disrupt the business of the body or other citizens' right of access."

The guidelines can include the number and type of cameras permitted and where they can be positioned, for instance, the judges wrote. But any rules must be "neutrally adopted and administered and limited in scope."

Tarus said he hopes the case will inspire the Legislature to pass a measure that expressly allows videotaping since the Supreme Court declined to decide whether the New Jersey Constitution guarantees the right. The court said such a decision was not needed after finding citizens have a right to videotape public meetings under English common-law traditions dating to the 18th century.

Those rights have not always been recognized by governmental agencies, particularly when it comes to dealing with vocal critics, public advocates said.

In Piscataway, for instance, Clara Halper, whose family is embroiled in a dispute with township officials over their family-owned Cornell Dairy Farm, claimed a councilman tried to grab a video camera from her hand at a public meeting several years ago.

Tina Renna, a critic of the Union County government, had a run-in with freeholders last month over her plans to videotape budget hearings because of concerns the room was too small. The county later videotaped the proceedings and made tapes available.

"It was absurd, the reasons they gave me for not allowing to tape the budget hearings -- they just didn't want me to do it," said Renna, who in light of the decision plans to videotape other freeholder meetings not being recorded by the county. "They cannot keep the doors closed anymore because people like me are out there and with very little money can ... record their meetings better than they can."

Ed Barocas, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said the decision clamps down on government agencies that "attempt to cloak in secrecy" their actions.

"Just as important as the specifics of the opinion ... was the general recognition of New Jersey's long-standing tradition of ensuring openness and access to government information," he said. "This case is going to be referred to in the future on such issues."

William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said he was glad the court allowed towns to regulate videotaping.

"The principles set forth in this case balance the citizens' right to videotape and the municipality's need to conduct an orderly, undisrupted meeting," he said.

In the case before the Supreme Court, Tarus filed a civil lawsuit alleging wrongful arrest after being charged with disorderly conduct twice in 2000 for trying to videotape separate Pine Hill council meetings.

An attorney for Pine Hill and its former mayor, Leslie Gallagher, did not return a call for comment.

A three-judge state appeals court unanimously dismissed Tarus' claim, saying the state constitution does not protect citizens who videotape a meeting. In doing so, the court gutted a 1984 appeals court ruling that had given citizens -- in that case, the members of a teachers union -- "the right to videotape the proceedings of the (school) board."

The Supreme Court's ruling yesterday restores that right. And as part of its decision, the high court reinstated Tarus' lawsuit and sent it back to the trial judge to find whether the borough violated his common-law rights during the two meetings.

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