Court Hears Case Over Ban on Secret Recordings of Public Officials

A federal appeals court heard arguments this week in a case over whether a Massachusetts law banning secret audio recordings of police and government officials violates the First Amendment.

A federal appeals court heard arguments this week in a case over whether a Massachusetts law banning secret audio recordings of police and government officials violates the First Amendment. Shutterstock

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STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | Voter photo ID law proposed in Kentucky … Maryland governor wants to sue Pennsylvania over environmental concerns in Chesapeake Bay … Fight over vacant house in Oakland.

A federal appeals court heard arguments this week in a case over whether a Massachusetts law banning secret audio recordings of police and government officials violates the First Amendment. A district court judge in 2018 ruled that the law was unconstitutional, a decision state prosecutors are fighting to have overturned. Prosecutors laid out a number of scenarios in which a secret recording would be harmful: when a police officer speaks with a confidential informant in a public place, when an elected official speaks one-on-one with a constituent at a senior center or when a social worker speaks with a sexual assault victim in a hospital. Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who is sitting on the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals panel,  said that the confidential informant question was not the one before the court. “Why don’t we just wait until there’s a case that raises that issue?” he asked. The ACLU of Massachusetts argued against the law on behalf of two Boston residents who frequently record police activity. "The government should have an interest in encouraging members of the public to create accurate records of what police officers say in public when they think no one is recording them," the group wrote in a legal brief. Project Veritas, a conservative investigative organization, also sued over the law, arguing that the state law is an outlier because most others allow the secret recording of public officials. "People record life events, share them with others, publish them as news, and connect with the world … Massachusetts should welcome—not imprison—citizens using technology to advance speech,” the group said. Assistant Attorney General Eric Haskell, in his response to the suit, wrote that “the awareness that one is being recorded is significant to both public employees and the private citizens who interact with them." [Associated Press; Courthouse News]

VOTER ID LAW | Republicans in Kentucky want the state to implement a law that would require voters to present a valid photo ID at the polls in order to cast a ballot in upcoming elections. A bill was introduced in the legislature that would require a photo ID issued by the state or federal government, or one issued by a college, as long as it has an expiration date. University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, the two largest universities in the state, do not issue IDs with expiration dates. Republican state Sen. Robby Mills is sponsoring the bill. “Every election there’s always a little bit of blurbs going on nationally or statewide and it just increases that confidence if we required people to identify themselves with a photo before they vote,” he said. ACLU of Kentucky legal director Corey Shapiro said that the proposal would make voting more difficult for people with disabilities and people of color. “The voters elected the legislature to solve the real problems facing this Commonwealth. There is no evidence that in-person voting fraud is a problem in Kentucky, as evidenced by not a single credible instance of voter fraud in the close election last fall,” Shapiro said. If the bill passes, Kentucky would become the eighth state with a strict voter photo ID law. [WAVE News; WFPL]

CHESAPEAKE BAY | Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called on the state’s attorney general to sue Pennsylvania and the EPA over what he said is their failure to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Hogan said that the state has repeatedly asked Pennsylvania to take responsibility for the sediment and debris in the Bay originating from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. "We have a generational responsibility to protect the bay, and we simply cannot afford to fall short of these shared obligations. Pennsylvania … has proposed a [plan] which it would fall drastically short of its agreed-upon 2025 pollution reduction targets. The EPA currently appears to have no intention of taking the necessary action to ensure Pennsylvania's compliance with its commitments,” Hogan said. Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, commended Hogan for the lawsuit. "Pennsylvania is the lynchpin of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup … So far, Pennsylvania’s elected officials have not made the investments needed to meet their clean water commitments. And EPA’s failure to impose consequences puts the entire cleanup at risk,” he said. [WBAL; PennLive]

VACANT HOUSE | A group of homeless women took over a vacant house in Oakland in November to protest California’s rising housing costs. The house belongs to a real estate investment group that bought the house in a foreclosure auction last year. Dominique Walker, one of the women living in the house, said it has sat vacant for too long. “Housing is a human right. I pay bills there. I pay water, PG&E, internet. We live there. We want to purchase the home. It needs to belong back in the hands of the community. It was stolen through the foreclosure crisis,” she said. Sam Singer, a spokesman for the real estate investment group, said that “they’re illegally occupying it, and that is not the right thing to do. It’s simply theft.” A court case to evict the women is pending, but Moms 4 Housing, a group formed to support the women, has started to gain the support of lawmakers in the area, including  Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner. “I want to thank Moms 4 Housing for taking that house and for demonstrating that nowhere, nowhere should there be a vacant house anywhere in California when we have the housing crisis that we have. And it was totally legitimate for those homeless moms to take over that house,” she said. [Blavity; Los Angeles Times]

MARIJUANA | Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote a letter to state lawmakers expressing his opposition to legislation that would legalize medical marijuana in the state. Marshall said it would be an “abdication of [his] duty” to not express his thoughts, and said the proposal would be “in direct conflict with duly enacted and clearly constitutional federal law.” State Sen. Tim Melson, the sponsor of the medical marijuana bill, said he will proceed regardless, noting that Alabama is currently fighting in federal court to uphold its law that criminalizes abortion at any stage in a pregnancy. “We can’t pick and choose when we’re consistent with federal guidelines or not. I just want to do what’s best for Alabama and our citizens and if that conflicts with federal law, I still think we ought to do it. We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Melson said. [ABC 3340]

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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