Court decision boosts N.J. residents’ rights

The New Jersey Supreme Court struck a blow for the rights of Garden State citizens last week when it delivered a unanimous ruling that people have a right to videotape public meetings.

The case that was decided by the court arose from an issue in Pine Hill, Camden County, where the local government refused to allow a citizen – reportedly a critic of the governing body – to videotape its meetings.

The lame reason offered by the mayor for refusing to permit the videotaping was that some audience members were concerned about being videotaped. Who were those scared audience members? Participants in a witness protection program?

This is the 21st century, welcome to it.

Chief Justice James R. Zazzali wrote, “Openness is a hallmark of democracy – a sacred maxim of our government – and video is but a modern instrument in that evolving pursuit. Arbitrary rules that curb the openness of a public meeting are barricades against effective democracy.”

Justice Zazzali deserves an award for those words, which should make it perfectly clear that people have a right to tape open proceedings.

People seeking to do so should not be threatened with removal from the proceedings.

We agree with public officials who would only ask that the person doing the videotaping or audiotaping not be overly intrusive.

If you think this type of situation is uncommon, consider this. A Greater Media News-papers reporter who was audiotaping a school board meeting last week was initially told that she was violating board policy by making a tape of the meeting.

That particular school board does not tape its meetings.

It was only after the reporter challenged that heretofore unknown policy that the board relented and allowed the taping to continue.

Later in the meeting the board’s administrator told the reporter it was board policy that anyone wishing to tape a meeting advise the board the day before the meeting.

Ironically, that exchange in a local community occurred a day before the Supreme Court made its decision in the Pine Hill case.

Open public meetings are just that, open to written and taped accounts of the proceedings so that the public knows exactly what its representatives are up to.