The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Transparency

How much is too much?



Today is Primary Day. On my way to the polling place I expected to see some sign holders. Instead I encountered only one sign, and that was for a candidate not even on the ballot!



Inside the polls there was nary a voter in sight. Here is a picture I took looking down the stairs at Precinct Ten.



As I took the picture, a nearby poll worker frowned at me. Trying to be friendly, I asked her if the turnout was good. She replied frostily, "No!"

Sheesh, I told her to have a nice day and left. I could be wrong, but I think the poll worker's frostiness had more to do with my picture taking than the low turnout. I say that because last year I was actually stopped from taking a picture at the polls by a worker who told me it wasn't allowed. Then that evening on the news I saw to my chagrin that Channel 40 had come with a camera crew and been freely allowed to film at that very same polling place. Oh, so the mainstream media can come and take pictures at will, but bloggers are banned?

According to the Center for Citizen Media under Massachusetts law there are virtually no restrictions on photographing the polls, provided your photographs don't reveal how anyone voted:

Poll Photography Laws for Massachusetts

Can you photograph or video your vote inside the polling station–either a paper ballot or electronic screen?

Not after marked: A Massachusetts voter shall not “allow the marking of [his or her] ballot to be seen by any person for any purpose not authorized by law.”
MA ST 56-25 (available at http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/56-25.htm).

Can you photograph or video yourself voting inside the polling station?

Probably: Although a voter is restricted from disclosing the contents of his or her marked ballot, photographing or videotaping the ballot before marking a vote, or the voting process generally does not appear to be restricted.

Can you photograph or video others voting or the working of the polling station from within it?

Probably: You may not “hinder, delay or interfere with” a voter, be disorderly, or restrict open and unobstructed access to the polling station, there does not appear to be a restriction on photographing or videotaping the working of a polling station.
MA ST 56-29 (http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/56-29.htm), MA ST 56-46 (http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/56-46.htm), MA ST 54-71 (available at http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/54-71.htm).

Can you photograph or video the polling station from outside it?

Yes: There does not appear to be any restriction on photography or videotaping a polling place from outside the actual building.

Can you photograph or video people leaving the voting station?

Yes: Without delving into rights of publicity, there doesn’t appear to be any restriction on photographing or videotaping people leaving the polling place.

Can you ask people questions leaving the polling station and can you video or blog their answers?

Yes: There does not appear to be any restriction on interviewing voters as they leave a polling station.


So there, Amherst poll workers! Learn to adopt a welcoming smile when voters or visitors to the polls take out their cameras, and be sure to invite them to take pictures, as is their legal right. And no special privileges should be granted to mainstream media that are denied to citizen journalists.

Actually there has been a recent controversy in Amherst about the role of citizen journalists in town government. While there were alot of wrinkles in the controversy based on personalities and small town politics, in general the controversy was about this:
Earlier this year longtime Select Board member Anne Awad purchased a home in South Hadley. To blogger Larry Kelley, this raised the issue of whether Awad was still a resident of the town in which served. She still owned a residence in Amherst, but it was for sale. Had the public official moved out of town, and if she had, shouldn't she resign her seat? Kelley wanted to find out, and began doing legal research online. He also photographed, from the street, Awad at the house she owned in South Hadley doing some gardening, an action strongly implying that was indeed where she lived.



Kelley's concern about Awad's residency was not irrelevant. Like the joke about the old biddy who voted the town dry and then moved away, no one wants anyone making policy for their town if they live elsewhere and don't have to live under the policies they help enact. It is not unreasonable for Amherst residents to wonder whether those setting public policy for Amherst are residents of Amherst themselves. Unfortunately the controversy degenerated from there with some accusing Kelley of stalking Awad and Awad herself resigning under a cloud. In the end there were really no winners.

But a legitimate issue was raised by the brouhaha. In an age when everybody has a phone with a camera, and anyone can document a public event and put it online, what rights, if any, do public officials have to privacy? When you are working on your garden, in front of every passerby, what right, if any, do you have to complain if someone photographs what you are otherwise doing in plain view?

In the old days, public officials knew exactly when they were under media scrutiny. The photographs taken of them were posed, with the photographer and the reporter often friends of the politician from frequent contact. The coverage a politician received was very much a formal process, with the interview well defined, the duration of the photographing session very clear, and the whole exchange being between people who knew one another. No one was surprised by any part of the reporting process, and everyone understood where the photographs and quotes would appear.

But that's all over. Today, everyone in the room where political events take place is a potential reporter. In the past only the owner of the printing press or the TV or radio station could reach a mass audience. Today every person in the room has that power, should they choose to exercise it. They can photograph, they can film and they can comment, all of which is made available to anyone who wishes to come online to view and read it. Even outside of formal events, pols may find themselves photographed and filmed anywhere in public where they appear. In the old days politicians could at least partially control media access, but the internet revolution has stripped them of that power. Not everyone likes that, especially those politicians who prefer to conduct the public's business out of view of the public.

Photographing a politician outside their home like Kelley did probably comes as close to the line of what's acceptable without crossing it. Because the issue was Awad's residency, and voters have a right to know whether their public officials still live in town, photographing her was not improper. But in another context it might have been. For example had Kelley's purpose been merely to embarrass Awad for her gardening skills, or what she was wearing, or any other reason not tied to a legitimate public issue, then it may well have been a violation of Awad's privacy.

I admit that's sort of hair-splitting, but such are the subtleties of this brave new world, where the people formerly known as the audience are now the reporters and the controllers of the media. It's Power to the People indeed, and the politicians better get used to it.

At a bus stop in Amherst I saw this sign advertising a ticket for sale. Looks like a good show, but I wouldn't pay no two hundred bucks to go.



Finally, here's a cute and sexy little film out of Hampshire College in Amherst called "Shower Time."

2 comments:

LarryK4 said...

Not to disagree with the guru but I honestly believe there was a clear winner in the Awad-gate affair: the people of Amherst.

And if I had to do it all over again I would not hesitate for a heartbeat. She’s gone and that is what matters most (wanna bet she voted in South Hadley yesterday?).

Keep in mind between 2004-2006 Ms. Awad was Amherst’s most powerful and most feared politician (why I dubbed her the “Czar”). And she was brought down by a blog (with minor help from the bricks-and-mortar media.)

If indeed the “truth is out there,” it will be first reported on a blog.

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