League of Women Voters forbids filming of San Francisco mayoral forum

Given that this is a public event being held on city property and pertaining a to government election, the mere suggestion that the media not be granted full access to the event is deeply troubling.

Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.
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Update: After writing this blog post, I spoke to The League of Women Voters, and SFGTV and the City Attorney's office. After making these phone calls, I was assured that the public would in fact be able to videotape the debate and on Thursday night, I did see plenty of cameras in the audience. To the best of my knowledge, everybody was provided full access to the debate.

In the city of San Francisco, a dozen people are running for mayor of San Francisco. I am one of them. Most of us are serious candidates pushing real issues and innovative solutions to the city's problems though you might not think so reading the local newspapers or watching the television.

In fact, many people in San Francisco don't even know there is an election next month. Of those who do, many are unaware that Gavin Newsom, the incumbent, is not running unopposed. By all accounts the mayor is running a very quiet campaign, and has refused to participate in any candidate forums or debates. Except one.

Almost all of the candidates, including Newsom, will be taking part in a candidate forum tonight. It's sponsored by the League of Women Voters and will take place at 6:00PM in the Koret Auditorium at the main branch of the public library. The event will be taped by SFGTV, the local government television station, and according to an e-mail I received from Jolinda Sim, the Candidate Forums chair for the League of Women Voters, "no videotaping or flash photography [will be] allowed due to the fact that SFGOV TV is taping this forum for broadcast."

Given that this is a public event being held on city property and pertaining a to government election, the mere suggestion that the media not be granted full access to the event is deeply troubling. The fact that the government is actually involved in taping the forum means that the city is complicit in denying the media access. This is not only alarming, it may even be illegal.

The California Brown Act states:

54953.5. (a) Any person attending an open and public meeting of a legislative body of a local agency shall have the right to record the proceedings with an audio or video tape recorder or a still or motion picture camera in the absence of a reasonable finding by the legislative body of the local agency that the recording cannot continue without noise, illumination, or obstruction of view that constitutes, or would constitute, a persistent disruption of the proceedings.
It's true that the forum is not a public meeting of a legislative body, and the Brown Act may not apply in this circumstance, but San Francisco's open government laws tend to be stronger than the state's and the media is typically provided unfettered access to record any public events held on city property. I have not found any local laws addressing this issue, but I will be contacting the City Attorney's office later today and will update this story if I am able to learn anything about the legality of this policy.

Even if there is nothing illegal about prohibiting everyone from filming and photographing the candidates' forum, it still goes against the principles of a free press and an open government. As a result of the media restrictions the public will be denied the opportunity to watch highlights from the debate on the evening news, and those in attendance will be prevented from posting clips online for the world to see. Newpapers and websites will be unable to capture images from the forum, and the candidates themselves will be forced to rely on SFGTV for footage of their remarks.

As journalists and citizens, it is our responsibility not to accept this policy or allow our government to be complicit in denying access to cover this public forum. If you value a free press, I encourage all of you who live near San Francisco to grab your camera and head down to the Koret Auditorium in the main branch of the public library at 6:00PM and demand the access you have been guaranteed under the First Amendment of our constitution.

If they refuse to let you in with your camera, turn it on and ask them while you are recording why you can't tape. Upload the video on your favorite video sharing service and send me a link. I hope to see you there, and I hope the League of Women Voters has second thoughts about implementing such an outlandish policy.