Maine lawmakers worry that recordings of public hearings may be used to embarrass them – and are considering ways to stop that from happening.

By Judith Meyer, Guest Contributor

Would it be OK for Maine to copyright all audio recordings of legislative committee hearings solely to restrict the use of embarrassing exchanges?

No. And, yet, the Legislative Council’s State House Facilities Committee is discussing this very thing.

Last month, after members of the Committee voted to maintain audio recordings instead of destroying them, a decision was made to investigate the cost and process of copyrighting these records to limit their use. It would be an unprecedented move for Maine and is being considered for the wrong reason.

Which is? Protecting sitting lawmakers from adversaries who may use their audio quotes to embarrass them in the political arena. It’s not to protect the integrity of the records. It would be done only to spare lawmakers from themselves, from off-the-cuff things they may say in committee that may then be used against them for future —possibly harmful — political purposes. The Facilities Committee discussed the possibility of copyright restrictions for political use while permitting access for educational and research use.

Here’s the problem: Not all political purposes are bad. Would banning political use prevent lawmakers from using recordings to highlight their most compelling arguments? Their most thoughtful suggestions? Their best-articulated positions shared during committee hearings? It would. So, this idea of banning political use may well shield the odd stuff lawmakers say, but it would also bar use of all the good that comes from committee work.

And who decides what is educational or research use? From a media perspective, our political coverage is always intended to educate readers and viewers. So, under this very informal scenario being discussed, the media could argue educational use even when lawmakers behave badly, which means the very thing lawmakers want to protect would not be protected. So why do it? And, is it even possible?

Copyright protection is intended to protect original and creative thought from use by others. And while there is a great amount of original thought and many creative ideas presented during public hearings, not all of it comes from lawmakers. Much of it comes from members of the public who testify and who purposely intend for their testimony to be heard and consumed by the public.

Do people offering testimony really want it to be restricted from wide dissemination?

Very doubtful. And, could government claim to “own” that testimony for purposes of copyright? Absolutely not.

The most important obstacle here, and it’s a glaring one, is the clear collision between copyright and public access. Legislative committees operate in public. The public has access to hearings (which are recorded and which recordings are instantly public records) and all written testimony. That’s the law. To drop a copyright on the audio portion of this material fundamentally changes public access to those records.

The entire purpose of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is for the public to understand the governmental process. The law doesn’t say only “good” records are public, or that the public may attend meetings only when everyone behaves.

Worse, this radical change in access is being considered outside the legislative process, without public hearing. So, while the Facilities Committee has been good enough to accept comments on this issue, it’s being done as a courtesy, not as a requirement.

If we could, for a moment, put all these issues aside, there’s still the practical irony: copyrighting can be prohibitively expensive, and copyrighting the daily work of multiple committees would be grossly expensive. So, we — the taxpayers — would be asked to foot the bill to restrict our access to public records in order to spare lawmakers from possible embarrassment caused by their own words or actions.

How is that our responsibility? It isn’t.

The Legislative Council’s Facilities Committee last considered this issue on May 23 and asked Executive Director Grant Pennoyer to research copyright cost and process for consideration at its next meeting, which is not yet scheduled. When it is, we must protest this on the basis of purpose, access, and cost. These audio recordings are unquestionably the public’s records, and we have a right to access without restriction.

Judith Meyer is executive editor of the Sun Journal, a vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and a member of the Legislature’s Right to Know Advisory Committee.

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