We can see why elected officials wouldn’t want recordings of what they say at public meetings. After all, nobody likes to have their own words used against them. But the Constitution is on the side of the people, and allowing Maine legislators to use copyright law as a shield from being recorded — and criticized — should be a nonstarter.

At issue is the fate of audio recordings of public hearings before the Maine Legislature’s 14 standing committees. Anyone with an internet connection can listen to these hearings live or ask for recordings of proceedings that they’d missed, thus making it possible for busy citizens from all corners of the state to keep up with the making of laws that affect their everyday lives.

Now the State House Facilities Committee is weighing the idea of adding a copyright or disclaimer to the audio recordings, which would essentially allow the state to sue citizens for using recordings of statements made by public officials in ways that those officials don’t like.

Those favoring copyright cite the Maine Republican Party’s posting in March of audio snippets by two Democratic Health and Human Services Committee members. Republicans blasted the legislators as “out of touch” proponents of “more welfare (and) less work.” The legislators countered that the sound bites from the four-hour meeting were taken out of context.

We don’t know whether having a copyright on the recording would have stopped Maine Republicans from employing the clips to gain rhetorical leverage. We do know that copyright law has been used before to hide information from public view.

Case in point: In 2015, the city of Inglewood, California, sued local resident and government watchdog Joseph Teixeira for posting excerpts of City Council meeting video recordings online, overlaid with his own critical comments. A federal judge threw out the copyright suit, concluding that Teixeira’s use of the videos as a jumping-off point for political commentary was fair under federal law.

But when faced with government officials invoking copyright protections, not everyone is as willing or able as Teixeira to stand up for their rights. Adding a copyright to meeting records would be enough to deter many Mainers from accessing material that should be shared, listened to and scrutinized by as many citizens as possible. After all, these are recordings made at public proceedings, with public funds.

The risk of a legislator’s words being politicized shouldn’t be allowed to outweigh the importance of a constituent’s access to those words. The State House Facilities Committee should abandon this proposal and consider what it can do to enhance rather than roll back government transparency in Maine.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: