Arresting Filmmakers... in America?

Yesterday, Academy Award-nominated documentarian Josh Fox was arrested by U.S. Capitol police while trying to film a public Congressional Hearing. Isn't this the kind of chilling free speech episode we Americans condemn when it happens in other countries?

The U.S. House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment was holding a public hearing, and Fox was there with his camera crew to get footage for a documentary film. According to press reports, the Subcommittee's Chairman exercised his authority to bar filming by individuals without proper House of Representatives' press credentials. Fox persisted, was arrested by Capitol Police, and charged with unlawful entry.

Fox says that he repeatedly sought permission in advance to film the public hearing, but those requests were denied by the House Committee. By all accounts, there was plenty of room for the camera, and the film crew was not interfering with the hearing. One Representative made just that point, and asked that the rules be waived so that Fox might stay. That request also was denied. It's one thing to regulate media access if the room had been chaotic and overrun by cameras, but that wasn't the case here.

Why should a documentary filmmaker, exercising his First Amendment rights, be denied the right to film a public hearing? If every person filming a hearing is required to have a certain press credential, Congressional Staff or the Capitol Police should have helped Fox obtain one, not arrest him. If every person filming a hearing isn't required to have a valid credential, and the rule is enforced selectively, then we should all be concerned about the constitutional implications. Limiting speech or media access based on the content of the speech or the viewpoint of the speaker runs afoul of our core free speech protections. Only through exposure to divergent views can we be informed enough to make the important decisions that citizens are called to make in a democracy.

What Fox is doing with his filmmaking is exactly the kind of communication at the heart of our First Amendment protections. Whether one agrees with the views expressed in Fox's films or not, we should all agree that citizens have a right to know and tell other citizens what our elected officials are doing. We shouldn't be arresting documentary filmmakers in America for filming public hearings.