AUGUSTA — Three years ago, the wife of a Pennsylvania high school principal faced harassment charges for allegedly grabbing a basketball player during the bus ride home from a disappointing game.

The woman beat the rap, but a piece of evidence from the case — security video taken on the bus — became the centerpiece of a Freedom of Information fight when a television station sought access to the recording.

In December, an appeals court cleared the way for the station to get the footage when a three-judge panel agreed Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law required its release after rejecting the school system’s argument that it ought to be off-limits to protect children’s privacy.

After a push from Bangor officials, Maine lawmakers are weighing whether to make sure similar footage in the Pine Tree State would be hidden from public view.

Rep. Tori Kornfield, D-Bangor, told colleagues recently she introduced a bill to revise the state’s Freedom of Access Act after Bangor officials requested the change to make sure a ruling like the one in Pennsylvania couldn’t happen in Maine.

Her bill would “ensure the confidentiality of videotapes depicting students from security cameras located on school property and school buses,” she said.

The bill’s wording, though, appears much broader.

It says, “An elementary or secondary school shall keep confidential a video recording in which a student is present, including a video recording taken in a bus or other means of student transportation used by the school, and may not disseminate or publish the video recording without the written permission of a parent of the student.”

Students are present in all sorts of video that schools sometimes possess, from football games to band concerts.

Kornfield’s focus in her testimony was on security footage alone.

Addressing the Pennsylvania ruling, she said it “raises great concern for the safety of students in our school systems. Videotape footage of clearly identifiable children intended to maintain the security and safety of students should not be available to the public.”

Nobody argued to the contrary at the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee hearing, but open government advocates have spoken up in defense of the public’s right to know in similar circumstances.

In the Pennsylvania case, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, the Student Press Law Center, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists told the court that “the privacy interests involved in behavior aboard a school bus — a space that is hardly ‘private’ — are minimal as compared with the overriding public interest in making sure that schools are safe and that school authorities are discharging their safety duties properly.”

“Concealing videos that shed light on the operations of schools disserves the public’s interest in accountability and runs counter to well-established principles” about the accessibility of public record, the groups said in a legal brief.

Kornfield doesn’t have the only bill on the topic this session.

The Judiciary Committee is also weighing a proposal by Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, that would put “video and audio recordings made by security or surveillance cameras on school grounds or in school vehicles” outside the materials covered by the state’s open access law.

Dan Davis of Porter testified that this sort of information should be public “as the state is constantly surveilling students.”

Richard Thompson of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association told the Judiciary panel that his group “supports protecting the privacy of students and agrees that videos should not routinely be made public.”

However, he said, “there are instances in which the video should be available in the interests of justice. For example, if a student is assaulted on a bus the video of that incident should be available to the victim’s parents and attorney in order to determine what action should be taken.”

The Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association endorsed Kornfield’s bill.

“Given how ubiquitous videotaping has become on buses and in school hallways, the court’s decision raised concern that anyone could request school videos under the Freedom of Access law,” Steven Bailey, executive director of Maine School Management Association, told legislators.

“We can say with certainty that school officials and parents don’t want videos of their children being given out to strangers,” Bailey said.

Some say the proposal offered by Kornfield doesn’t go far enough.

Paul Nicklas, an attorney for the city of Bangor, told legislators he would like to see the bill amended to keep confidential “all security footage from vehicles and facilities owned by the state or local governments, with exceptions for body cameras, dash cameras, and intelligence and investigative information.”

Nicklas testified that several months ago, “a person asked the Bangor Public Library for security footage of a young girl he had seen dancing in or near the library.” It didn’t get turned over, he said, because the library is not run by the city and consequently is not subject to sunshine laws that normally apply to government records.

Had it been a municipal record, Nicklas said, “the library may have had no choice but to give out the video.”

He said Bangor’s parks department has also asked for protection on the issue because it uses buses that may have security footage.

Nicklas said the open government laws are “a critical part of Maine’s democracy,” but there are instances “where individuals’ right to privacy outweigh the public’s right to know.”

“Security camera footage of children is one of those instances,” he said.

A committee work session on Kornfield’s measure is slated for Wednesday. The Judiciary panel hasn’t scheduled one yet. Neither can become law without the backing of the House, Senate and Gov. Janet Mills.


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