The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing a lawsuit that accuses state senators of violating the Sunshine Law. Progress Missouri filed suit after being kicked out of Senate hearings on multiple occasions while videotaping proceedings.
The group's appeal to the state Supreme Court comes after the circuit judge of Cole County sided with the Senate. The high court heard arguments from both sides on Wednesday.
The Senate says it will grant Progress Missouri videotaping privileges if it registers as media with the Capitol News Association. But representatives from the organization, which is heavily involved in advocacy work, say that filing as a media organization would significantly change the nature of their projects.
“The concern here is when you allow one group to accord — for instance the institutionally established media — but not another, the government is trying to influence the type of coverage,” said Christopher Grant, the attorney representing Progress Missouri. “They’re putting a direct limitation on the content of the news.”
Assistant Attorney General Jay Morgan says legal precedents for recording restrictions permeate the United States. Congress provides limited access to videotaping, as does the Missouri Supreme Court and many other governmental institutions. The Missouri Senate should be no exception.
“There is no dispute that there is no independent right to record, as many states and courts have concluded…” said Morgan. “To record [in Congress], you have to be a member of the [press] gallery. Gallery members can’t be involved in lobbying, advertising, publicity or promotion. So, these same types of limitations on traditional media are the same limitations that Congress has applied.”
The plaintiffs claim Morgan's point of legal precedent is irrelevant to Missouri because Congress doesn’t have to comply with a Sunshine Law. This Missouri law is in place to aid those that aim to distribute important information pertaining to the government.
“The public deserves to know what’s going on in hearing rooms,” said Laura Swinford, head of Progress Missouri. “The Sunshine Law makes things open to all of us. City councils have to comply, school boards comply. There’s no reason the Missouri Senate should be above the Sunshine Law.”
Both sides discussed the ability for the Senate communications team to provide adequate video footage of every committee hearing. The legislators say limiting recordings of public hearings is necessary to ensure decorum in the committee rooms. Senators should be able to have civil, orderly discussions on proposed legislation.
“[Senate communications] intend to record all their hearings and to make them available to everyone,” said Morgan. “The enforcement, the interpretation is left to the Senate to determine.”
But, Progress Missouri disagrees. It says it’s not reliable enough for one organization to be responsible for videotaping all that goes on within the Capitol’s walls. Staffers who are out sick, weather problems and technical difficulties may unintentionally thwart the dissemination of important information to the public.
Although the organization says it has faced very little resistance from House committees and the majority of Senate committees, rights to videotape should be more clearly spelled out.
“It is a little strange that we have rules that change from committee, to committee, to committee,” said Grant. “You would think the public has a right to know what’s happening in those meetings regardless of who’s the chairman. And that public’s right to know shouldn’t hinge on how a particular chairman views Progress Missouri or some other group.”
The State Supreme Court will rule on the case at a later date.
Mallory Daily is an intern at the State Capitol Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio. Follow on Twitter: @malreports