News Groups and NEFAC call for Preservation of Maine State House Committee Recordings

Photo and article by Ramona du Houx

The New England First Amendment Coalition expressed concern this week about a proposed policy that would limit access to recordings of the Maine State House Facilities Committee, calling such recordings “an invaluable tool to aid with accuracy and immediacy, and one that is in the public’s great interest.”

The State House Facilities Committee is responsible for, among other things, the management of the capitol grounds and legislative space in the State House. It is currently considering three policies for the recording of its public hearings:

(1) provide the recordings for public viewing on the legislature’s website,
(2) provide the recordings to the public only by request, or
(3) immediately delete the recordings after they are publicly broadcasted.

The committee is also exploring copyright protection against the public distribution of the recordings if they are ultimately preserved.

These options are being considered in response to the fears of some committee members that widely distributed recordings of public hearings may have an adverse impact on those providing testimony.

In an April 25 letter to the committee — drafted by the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition — NEFAC, MFOIC, Sun Media Group and MaineToday Media addressed those concerns while advocating for public access.

“Members of the public who offer testimony do so in a public forum, where they can be clearly seen and heard, and that testimony is streamed live to be heard by untold numbers of people,” the groups wrote. “Preserving information that has already been made public does no harm. In fact, quite the opposite.”

A publicly accessible archive of the recordings, the groups explained, has research and educational value. There is also the legal value of having a record of committee dialogue: “Preservation and access eliminates any question about what was said in committee rooms, including by those offering testimony and by elected officials, many who ask questions for more information and clarity.”

The immediate deletion of the recordings will also limit the ability of news organizations to inform their communities, according to the groups. Of additional concern is the idea that the recordings could be given copyright protection and their distribution limited by the very taxpayers who paid for them.

“Media companies, upon which the public relies for information, often access these files for background material, to confirm facts and also to report on current legislation,” the groups wrote, adding that the recordings “are unquestionably public records which the public has an absolute right to access.”