This week a new sign prohibiting photography went up on the outside of the NC General Assembly's third floor public gallery overlooking the Senate Chamber. This was strange. As thousands of children can attest, taking photos when visiting the gallery is a favorite pastime and has been for years. No such new prohibition appears on the doors to the public gallery overlooking the NC House.
In fact, photography is specifically allowed in the House and Senate public galleries on the third floor of the Legislative Building, at least according to the guidance for visiting the legislative complex on the General Assembly's own website. While the official "Rules for Use of the Legislative Building" document doesn't mention photography at all, there is a guarantee to the public of free access to the Legislative Complex, "so long as they do not disturb the General Assembly, one of its houses, or its committees, members, or staff in the performance of their duties." Finally, the official rules governing debate and decorum in both the House and Senate do not deal specifically with photography either. They do enable control of a "disturbance or disorderly conduct in the galleries," but taking a photo, especially without a flash, can hardly qualify.
So what prompted this quick change in longstanding policy and only in the Senate chamber? Why restrict the public from doing something they've done for years? The answer lies in the clubby and comfortably closed atmosphere of the NC Senate. The famously secret deliberations of the Senate around major policy issues – like the budget – have been discussed at length by commentators and the press. But you have to speak sometime, and Senators have grown used to, over the years, a pretty affable atmosphere on the Senate floor. Drastic reductions in both TV and print coverage of the General Assembly have meant that standing up and fulsomely orating about any particular bill is often like talking with a friendly country club audience who won't hold you much to account for any slip-ups or more outrageous statements.
Enter YouTube. A short video I did a few weeks ago criticizing the Senate for attempting to close NC's affordable children's health insurance program included some footage of the above mentioned type of oration. Despite that it's only been seen by a couple hundred people, a fact that is smashing my dreams of YouTube stardom, I guess it must have had some effect. While I'm sure it was no factor at all in the Senate's quick reversal and new support to keep open the child health program, it does seem to have prompted the photography ban.
I understand the fears of the Senate. The thought that anyone might be held to account for what they actually say is terrifying, especially if they feel what they say is taken out of context. Unfortunately, explaining what you said and what you meant to the people back home is just part of the job of being a politician. The more raucous House seems to have little fear, at least so far, of having to justify their public statements to others. Kids can still use their cameras over in that chamber.
I doubt the photography ban will stand. There really is no justification for it other than to hide further the deliberations of a public body that often seems to wish it could conduct all its business behind closed doors. Today's silent and unobtrusive cameras – most of which easily move between taking still photos and video — remove any reasonable argument that they disturb the "decorum of the chamber." And, after all, the public does foot the bill for the show going on below the galleries. Senators will just have to get used to a little more accountability, and that never is a bad thing.