(Updated 12:40 p.m. Mon., Feb. 3)
Missouri state Sen. Brian Nieves says he didn't intend to ignite a controversy over freedom of the press with his mandate that cameras and recorders are welcome — but no tripods — during public meetings of the Senate committee that he chairs.
“You can videotape until your heart’s content,” said Nieves, R-Washington, in an interview. “I just don’t want the process of videotaping to block the view of anybody else.’’
Nieves said his restriction is necessary because his Senate General Laws Committee has had standing-room-only hearings lately on several controversial issues, including his own bill to bar enforcement in Missouri of many federal gun laws.
“I’m not going to have my committee room filled with tripods or equipment of any kind that blocks people’s views,’’ the senator said. “Some of these people may have driven five hours to attend the proceedings.”
But Phill Brooks, veteran director of the Missouri School of Journalism’s state government reporting program, said the order amounts to a ban against video news coverage because professional-quality cameras require a tripod to produce usable footage.
Nieves, said Brooks, wants “cameras restricted to the areas where the general public sits. That means the camera is just getting the back of the head of the witness, which would be worthless. For all intents and purposes, you’ve effectively banned TV coverage.”
The professor emphasized that the primary role of journalists is to provide coverage of the legislative proceedings to millions of Missourians not in the hearing room. Tripods are necessary to fulfill that duty, Brooks insisted.
Such differences came to a head last week during a packed committee hearing, when Nieves ordered Brooks’ student reporter to take down his tripod, and subsequently had the doorman escort the reporter and his tripod out of the room.
Brooks wasn’t present when the confrontation occurred, although other reporters did record the events.
Brooks acknowledged that he had helped the student set up the tripod before the committee meeting. Brooks and the student were aware of Nieves’ rule. But both felt, said Brooks, that “we should not just acquiesce’’ to what they viewed as a de facto ban on video cameras.
Nieves said the student reporter and his tripod were "just absolutely physically blocking three or four other people in a standing-room only committee room.”
“I said, ‘You need to take that tripod down.’ He said ‘Why?’ I said, ‘We’ve already been through this’ He said, ‘Why’ again… He was trying to bait me,” Nieves said. “Finally I just told the doorman, ‘Take care of this.’ ”
Brooks said the reporter was respectful, and was not seeking any sort of confrontation.
Brooks and Nieves agree that — contrary to some accounts — the reporter was not banned and did return to the hearing without the tripod.
Cameras banned during panel's executive session and vote
Nieves then touched off more media unrest when he ordered all video and TV cameras out of the room during the committee’s executive session. Nieves said that such an order is Senate policy. Brooks disagrees, saying he’s never heard of such a mandate during his decades in the state Capitol.
A spokeswoman for the Senate majority caucus said Monday that the office inadvertently gave Nieves incorrect information when he initially inquired about cameras during a committee's executive session. It's up to the chairman to decide whether cameras were allowed, said spokeswoman Lauren Hieger. "We miscommunicated,'' she added, by giving Nieves the impression that there was a ban.
It's also up to the committee chairman to decide what camera equipment will be allowed in the hearing room, she said. Hieger cited a provision of Senate Rule 96, which states "Persons with cameras, flash cameras, lights, or other paraphernalia may be allowed to use such devices at committee meetings with the permission of the chairman as long as they do not prove disruptive to the decorum of the committee..."
Sean Nicholson with Progress Missouri, a progressive activist group, filed a formal complaint Monday with Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster's office, contending that the Senate rule violates Missouri's Sunshine Law. The Sunshine Law, said Nicholson, bars committee chairmen from banning cameras at any of their meetings.
Nieves acknowledges that last week’s dispute has produced a flood of phone calls to his office. But he’s not sure what the sentiment has been. “We don’t know, because I’m ignoring them,’’ Nieves said dryly.
In any case, some compromise may be in the works.
Nieves said he may revisit his ban on cameras during executive sessions.
Meanwhile, Brooks recognizes the problems with tripods in small Capitol committee rooms. “Do tripods in that room create congestion? Absolutely,” Brooks said.
Brooks confirmed that talks are underway to see if acceptable locations for tripods can be found that fulfill journalists’ need to cover the committee proceedings while not blocking the view of the audience.
Meanwhile, Nieves said that — except for tripods — his overall policy about news-media coverage has been generous. Senate rules, he said, require that reporters seeking to shoot video of public hearings first obtain advance permission from the committee chairman.
“This year, I decided I’m going to relax the policy,’’ Nieves said. “You do not need to ask me in advance,” just fill out a news-media ID form at the hearing.
“And I’m still catching fire,’’ Nieves said.
Nieves’ committee will hold its next hearing on Tuesday. Referring to Brooks’ student reporter, the senator said, “The boy can use his camera until his head falls off.”
But as it stands now, Nieves is adamant: no tripods.