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The question of whether the state Senate can restrict recording of meetings is still open after a court hearing on Thursday.
Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster refused to issue an injunction against the Senate that would have limited its authority to control chamber proceedings.
When Tiffani Morgan Walton tried to video record a heated July 29th Senate debate on the abortion bill from the gallery, she was threatened with arrest by the Capitol Police.
The ACLU of West Virginia filed legal actions, on Walton’s behalf, in state and federal courts against the West Virginia Senate, Senate President Craig Blair and the Capitol Police. They requested an injunction from Webster claiming the move violated their client’s first amendment rights and was a violation of an open meeting “sunshine” law, the West Virginia Open Governmental Meeting Act.
An attorney in the case said the act did not apply directly to the Senate or the House of Delegates. The attorney said the law applies to boards and committees, but not to the full Senate or House.
“The Senate has the power to control its galleries,” Senate attorney Michael Hissam said in court.
The attorney said Webster noted that language in the act shows the legislature may have exempted itself from the law.
Senate President Craig Blair said it’s his understanding that the rules on recording restriction options are the same for the U.S. House and Senate. He said the gallery rules on recording are posted and there’s full transparency.
“We are not trying to keep anybody from being aware of what’s going on and I can prove it,” Blair said. “Everything is available online. it’s archived for historical purposes, you can see everything that takes place.”
However, Blair said with the subject matter of abortion being passionately debated on the Senate floor, the gallery became out of control, forcing him to clear the gallery and shut off all recording cameras.
“When I put the Senate in recess and had the sergeant arms clear the gallery, what you couldn’t see or hear was all the profanities being shouted from the galleries by these people,” Blair said. “It was an embarrassing moment and there may be recordings of that out there, I have no idea. But I’m pretty certain that the Senate recording system, whenever I put us into recess for 15 minutes, our cameras were turned off.”
Webster asked both sides to research if the open meetings law applies to the Senate, prepare new briefs and then return to court later in the fall.