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This city put new restrictions on the right to record public meetings. Are they legal?

Wikipedia (public domain)
Riverview, Michigan

A tiny suburb in Detroit’s Downriver area has put some new restrictions on recording public meetings—some of which one attorney says seem to violate Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.

The Riverview City Council passed those restrictions last week. Among them:

  • Recording devices, including cell phones, can be used only in a “designated area.”
  • Equipment should be set up prior to meetings, after making arrangements with the City Clerk to “ensure that safety considerations are being met.”
  • Cameras must be on tripods and remain there.
  • Recording devices “must operate without additional artificial light” (no flash photography).
  • No “additional microphones” beyond those directly attached to recording equipment are allowed.
  • People must remain “seated and stationary” in the restricted area while recording.

Michigan’s Open Meetings Act guarantees the “right to tape-record, to videotape, to broadcast live on radio, and to telecast live on television the proceedings of a public body at a public meeting,” and “does not depend on the prior approval of the public body.” However, the law allows public bodies to “establish reasonable rules and regulations in order to minimize the possibility of disrupting the meeting.”

Some of Riverview’s rules appear to be excessive and out of line with that standard, says Robin Herrmann, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association.

“I don’t think that it’s proper to require tripods, or to prohibit audio enhancement,” Herrmann says. “The idea is the rules and regulations are to minimize disruption. So how is having a microphone near someone disruptive? I don’t make that connection.”

Herrmann says requiring pre-made “arrangements” with the City Clerk is also “suspect” under the law.

“You’re not required to register to attend meetings, that’s clear from the Open Meetings Act,” Herrmann says. “I don’t think that they can require you to, in advance, make decisions and essentially request permission, because you have to talk to someone to go set it up.”

Riverview City Manager Doug Drysdale said the changes came about because of "disruptions to our meetings by a certain reporter.” He said the restrictions on recording are legal and reasonable limitations that were vetted by the city's attorney, and modeled on "other policies across the state.”

“We just don’t want people walking with cameras, sticking microphones in people’s faces during meetings," Drysdale said.

Sue Suchyta, a freelance reporter who covers Riverview for the Downriver Sunday Times, says she usually uses a small, handheld video recorder to record meetings, and was used to being able to move about “to a limited extent” to take pictures. She said that she was able to record a Monday City Council meeting without using a tripod for her device, even though the new rules require it.

“It’s very disappointing that they’re going to limit my ability to cover an open meeting, and write about what’s happening in Riverview,” Suchyta said prior to that meeting Monday.

Suchyta says the restrictions on things like “additional microphones” will be even more difficult for broadcast journalists, or anyone trying to livestream a meeting. “That’s just difficult for anyone who has to get a good audio feed,” she says. “It just seems like it’s being taken too far.”

Update: This post was updated on 8/13/2019 at 12:13 p.m. to include a response from City Manager Doug Drysdale, and more information from reporter Sue Suchyta.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.