CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WOWK) – The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia is suing some state agencies and officials for not allowing a citizen to record a public government proceeding.
Officials with the ACLU-WV say they filed a pair of legal actions in both the state and federal courts alleging that the West Virginia Senate, West Virginia Division of Protective Services – the Capitol Police, and four officials who are employed by the Senate and Capitol Police violated their client’s legal right to record a government proceeding.
The proceeding in question was a debate on House Bill 302. The ACLU-WV says that during the hearing, officials barred the public from recording the debate and allegedly threatened to have the ACLU-WV’s client arrested for attempting to record the proceedings. ACLU-WV officials say in doing so, the defendants violated their client’s First Amendment rights.
According to the ACLU-WV, the client traveled to the West Virginia State Capitol to hear the debate on July 29 during the special session of the West Virginia Legislature. ACLU-WV officials say she was permitted to record the debate over West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s proposed tax bill. However, when the client began to record the debate over HB 302, the bill introduced to clarify West Virginia’s abortion laws, authorities allegedly “intervened almost immediately.”
Officials with the ACLU-WV said when the client told authorities she was within her rights to record, she was “laughed at” and told she would be arrested if she didn’t leave the gallery.
The ACLU-WV’s staff attorney Nick Ward, refusing to allow the client to record the debate also violates the “sunshine law” the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act. He says a 2019 advisory opinion from the West Virginia Ethics Commission on Open Governmental Meetings also demonstrated her right to film the proceeding. That opinion stated that a proposed ordinance in the city of Winfield to prohibit private citizens from recording public council meetings would have violated the state law.
“The Constitution, court rulings and state law are all quite clear: members of the public have every right to record public officials during public proceedings,” Ward said. “Sunshine laws lie at the very heart of our democracy. Without transparency, government cannot be held accountable by the people it serves. That’s why we’re also asking a court to remind politicians at the state Capitol of their responsibility to uphold and protect transparency laws.”
The ACLU-WV says the federal court action was filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern West Virginia regarding the client’s right to free speech guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. West Virginia Senate President Craig Blair, Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms Grover Miller, West Virginia Protective Services Director Kevin Foreman and Capitol Police Officer Van Armstrong are named as defendants in their official capacities in the lawsuit, according to the ACLU-WV.
Because violations of the Open Meetings Act are governed under West Virginia State laws, a separate action naming the West Virginia Senate and the West Virginia Division of Protective Services as the defendants was filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court, the ACLU-WV says.