Last week, State Senator Brad Hoylman, a frequent critic of his own chamber in Albany, posted a photo of that very chamber on his Twitter feed. It would likely be the last photo he’d be posting of the place, he revealed, thanks to a new rule voted in by the Republican majority to ban photo-taking there by anyone except official Senate photographers. This means lawmakers, members of the press and members of the public will from now on be made to ask permission first any time they think it’s important to record a moment, whether it’s of a vote or debate or any other relevant thing happening.
The vote came shortly after Congress proposed a similar policy to fine members for taking photos or livestreaming from the House floor.
The reasoning for the Senate rule, according to its sponsor, is that photo-taking and other cell phone use is disruptive during proceedings.
Fortunately, Hoylman has recognized this weak argument for what it is, an excuse to further shroud the legislative process in secrecy, since apparently having all major decisions impacting the state made by three men in a room just isn’t enough. Asked what inspired his colleagues to start 2017 with even less transparency than in prior years, Hoylman guessed it has to do with the fact that sometimes, other than candid photos of hands in the air that end up on social media, there’s no publicly available record of who voted for what. And many would like to keep it that way.
“I think it’s that the Republicans are concerned that members are going to take it upon themselves to show their constituents what’s going on in the chamber,” he said. “Votes are recorded by a show of hands and those votes aren’t recorded for public view. So there’s no accounting for some senators’ votes on some controversial measures.”
Hoylman gave an example of his own bill to end the statute of limitations for people who were sexually abused as children to file charges, which has so far failed to pass.
He also wondered if the LLC Loophole, which failed to close last year, was a factor. This has enabled campaign donations from limited liability corporations, often landlords, to give nearly limitless contributions to elected officials.
“This is a strategy by the Republicans to maintain the status quo,” Hoylman said.
As for this new rule, the Democrat senator said he’s heard no examples of how phones have actually been disruptive in the legislature, and he immediately fired off a complaint letter to the State Committee on Open Government. The committee is a unit within the New York Department of State. In the letter, Hoylman requested the committee to issue an advisory opinion on whether the new rule violates the Open Meetings Law.
“It’s not just an infringement of my First Amendment rights. It also infringes on the rights of the press and members of the public,” he said.
On Friday, a day after receiving Hoylman’s letter, Robert Freeman, the executive director of the Committee on Open Government, announced that he shares Hoylman’s view, according to an article in the Albany Times Union. In a letter to the senator, Freeman said the policy clearly runs contrary to state law. The blog also noted that while the committee’s role is only advisory, it could be helpful in the event of a legal challenge.
What may also prove helpful is a debate between Hoylman and the bill’s sponsor, upstate Senator John DeFrancisco, that was recorded on video. In it, DeFrancisco denied that the policy infringed on anyone’s First Amendment rights. He argued that there were opportunities for the press to take photos from the gallery, and that there would be “exceptions” provided by the secretary of the Senate for photo taking in the chamber, like on special days like last Wednesday, when which senators were sworn in.
“We are as transparent as we could possibly be,” he insisted. He added he just didn’t think it was necessary for people to take pictures of “their favorite joke that may be told.”
Asked by Hoylman if he could give an example of people taking photos in a way that was disruptive, DeFrancisco said he couldn’t remember a specific time, although he did say at times members of the public who’ve visited the chambers laughed and joked during session. As for press, he said he’d never heard of journalists being excluded from witnessing the proceedings.
When asked who controls the Senate’s official cameras, DeFrancisco said it was the secretary of the Senate.
“I was going to say the Russians, but I didn’t think you’d laugh at that,” DeFrancisco added.
He was correct; Hoylman didn’t laugh upon hearing this, and we’re not laughing either, because there’s nothing amusing about lawmakers trying to hide how they vote or debate on matters that affect the public. There’s certainly nothing acceptable about forcing journalists to get permission to do their jobs from the people whose activities they’re trying to cover. Further, trying to say that it’s about maintaining decorum in the chamber is just an insult to everyone’s intelligence. You can say many things about state lawmakers’ behavior at work, but the word rowdy does not come to mind.
Even Governor Andrew Cuomo has reportedly slammed the Republicans for trying to keep the public in the dark.
Following the Albany leadership scandals of 2015, there seemed to be no better time for ethics reform. However, the state legislature completely missed that boat in 2016, and it’s depressing to see that even in the New Year, the majority of lawmakers still aren’t interested in changing anything other than making it easier to get away with things.
A spokesperson for DeFrancisco didn’t get back to us on the policy.