AUGUSTA — Rep. Matt Pouliot says it’s time for the Maine Legislature to join the modern world and open the floor of the House to social media, such as Facebook Live.
The Augusta Republican asked the House Rules Committee on Wednesday to consider removing a longstanding ban on members taking photos or recording videos during a public session. He said his proposal would make the work done by lawmakers more transparent and accessible to their constituents.
“It is all about creating broader access and insight to the governing process,” he said, “and frankly, it enhances the general public’s ability to participate by using a platform such as Facebook Live that they’re already familiar with.”
But at least one key Democrat on the rules panel, Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake, a former long-serving speaker of the House and one of the most experienced lawmakers in Augusta, didn’t like the idea.
“I’m not sure I can put my arms around this issue the way you have,” he told Pouliot during a short hearing on the rule change. Martin, 75, said he envisioned a situation in which video from the House floor could be edited and used out of context for political purposes. He also questioned whether social media have encouraged a more civil political environment.
“Since I’m not a proponent of social media, I have no desire to support this, because I think it creates more problems than it (solves),” he said. “If I had my way, there would be no Facebook and no accounts out there, no tweakers or whatever else, and society would be a lot better off if they read the newspapers and watched the news.”
Pouliot, who turned 30 in December, said lawmakers might not like social media, but they need to recognize that Facebook is a platform that many people turn to for information.
“Social media is not going away, I hate to break it to you,” he said. “It is where people get their information. Over 60 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook whether we like it or not.”
Pouliot said he respects Martin’s viewpoint, but the Legislature should support improved government transparency. Limiting access to information because lawmakers don’t like the medium would be a “disservice” to their constituents, he said.
“It’s a different medium,” he said. “When you were my age in the Legislature, all that there was was the newspaper. Now my constituents expect to see what I’m doing and hear about how we vote and deal with issues on social media, because that’s where they are looking for news and they don’t buy the newspaper anymore.”
Pouliot’s proposal, which was tabled by the committee, takes an approach counter to the one adopted recently by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. They agreed to fine members up to $2,500 for recording videos during House floor sessions, prompting minority Democrats to blast the change as a “gag rule” that infringes on their free-speech rights.
The new rule was passed after Democratic lawmakers used a live video stream last June to broadcast a sit-in on the House floor when Republicans refused to take a vote on a bill that would have prohibited gun sales to citizens on a terror watch list. The Republican majority in the House adjourned, an action that ended the live coverage of the protest by C-Span, which only broadcasts under the rules when the House is in session.
Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine was among the more than 170 Democrats who took part in the protest.
The Maine Legislature already provides an online streaming service that broadcasts all House sessions live, and will soon make a free video archive available to the public. But Pouliot said many may not be aware of the service or have the means to access it easily.
The use of social media by legislative staff and lawmakers varies from state to state, but at least five states – Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin – have developed written policies, according to a March 2016 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. But most of those policies pertain to the use of social media by staff, and no state appears to have established a policy permitting the use of live video by elected officials during proceedings.
Pouliot said his intent was for House members to be able to have a seatmate in the Legislature capture a floor speech on Facebook Live, with the consent of the person being recorded.
The rules committee didn’t discuss the news media’s use of social media in its coverage of the Legislature, but television, radio, print and online bloggers who cover politics in Maine all use social media platforms, including live video, in their work.
Martin said he might go along with a system that allowed for a review of videos before they were posted to social media to protect the integrity of the content. He also said he might support allowing Facebook to stream on its platform the live video the Legislature provides directly. But he balked at allowing lawmakers to produce their own social media content live from the House floor.
“To simply make that, you know, bango and you are going to provide that to the world, I think we have enough of that crap that goes on now on social media and we don’t need any of it in the Maine House of Representatives,” Martin said.
Another rules committee member, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said he was interested in trying to work with Pouliot on the Facebook Live proposal, but he supported tabling the rule change for the time being.
“I’m not opposed to the use of any platform in making the proceedings of the House more available to the public,” Berry said. “But I am aware that we already have some very good cameras set up and would like to explore whether those could be used to make video available more readily.”
He said if lawmakers started reaching for their phones to record one another, decorum in the House would suffer and lawmakers would become distracted from the discussions or debates taking place. House rules now prohibit the use of props on the floor, and he said a lawmaker sticking his or her phone in the face of another lawmaker would be a comparable distraction.
“I think the idea is to really force us to be with one another, for us to be fully present without distractions, and I think there is a value in that,” Berry said.
It was unclear when the committee will revisit the rule change proposal.
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at: