Cameras and councils: Can video stifle citizens?

By Bobby Bryant, Editor,

Darlington City Council meets in the courtroom at City Hall.

It’s not the greatest arrangement if you’re shooting video of the meeting, because six council members sit lined up in a row and the seventh, Mayor Gloria Hines, sits farther back and higher up at what would be the judge’s bench.

Anna DeWitt positions her video camera at the far left side of the courtroom for the best angle on all the council members. DeWitt is a member of the Darlington Rescue Squad who decided some time back to “attend and record as many public meetings as I am able,” as she notes on her Facebook page, Darlington Public Meetings.

“I know that with today’s busy lifestyle, it is hard to attend meetings, which makes it impossible to stay informed,” DeWitt says on the Facebook page. “ . . . I, along with friends who fill in when I am at work, will record the meetings so that you may watch them at your (convenience). Problem solved; now it is up to you to take advantage of this opportunity. Knowledge = Power.”

So DeWitt has been shooting video when City Council convenes, normally the first Tuesday of the month. On Nov. 13 – an oddball meeting date because of the elections – DeWitt briefly became the subject of her own videos.

The issue went like this: City Council member Sheila Baccus had barred DeWitt from a recent weekend meeting of Ward 1 constituents – a meeting that DeWitt and others said had been billed as open to everyone. Why keep her out? Because, Baccus said, DeWitt wasn’t a Ward 1 constituent. And at the Nov. 13 City Council meeting, Baccus added that her constituents “did not want to be on YouTube; they did not want to be on Facebook.”

At the same council meeting, Darlington resident Gladys Wingate Jules, in remarks to council, criticized DeWitt: “To have someone come in to try to record a community meeting, to me, that lets the other citizens know, ‘I shouldn’t talk. I shouldn’t say anything.’”

So now we finally get to the point of this piece, and I apologize for taking so long to get there: Can shooting video at public meetings – whether a community meeting like Baccus’ or a regularly scheduled meeting of a full city or county council — throw cold water on the public’s willingness to speak out at those meetings?

It’s possible, says Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, but he says it’s not much of an issue when weighed against the public’s right to know what governing bodies are doing.

Rogers felt that Baccus’ community meeting was a gray area he couldn’t really judge. But as a rule, “Recording a public meeting is a good thing,” says Rogers. “At a public meeting, there’s no expectation of privacy. Unfortunately, it might make some people not want to speak out. . . . I’m sure there are people out there who don’t want to be on video . . . but people are making videos all the time.”

TV stations routinely park video cameras at public meetings and nobody seems to mind. It’s unlikely that younger people attending public meetings would even notice a small video camera, let alone be intimidated; everyone’s shooting cellphone video of everything and zapping it to Facebook, YouTube or their personal blogs. Video is mother’s milk to anyone under 50.

But older residents … ? Could they feel, as Jules put it, “I shouldn’t talk. I shouldn’t say anything”?

The Press Association’s Rogers won’t rule out that possibility, but again, he says it’s a question of balance. “Anytime you can make government more accessible, that’s a good thing. The more people who can see what’s going on in a meeting, the better it is.”

Author: Rachel Howell

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