Awkward and a bit flustered, the county judge of elections at my Scranton neighborhood polling place told me that the law banned cameras. So I put down my First Amendment weapon of democracy and even turned off the Droid smart phone that now dumbed down the act of newsgathering on behalf of the people.
I had simply asked if I could video myself voting. That was a compromise from what I had already announced on the air when I said I planned to video and post on the WILK News Radio web page my interaction with poll workers to see how he or she or they handled the new voter photo ID law that a judge had blocked.
It’s 2012 and new media has risen - sort of. Even federal courtrooms are hazy when it comes to the new rules of reporting. Some members of the print and broadcast press text live from court when a sign outside in the hall clearly forbids electronic devices. Lazy federal judges have not taken the time to responsibly address the matter and put it in writing. But subjective enforcement of ego-driven procedure is nothing g new in a federal courtroom.
No texting, laptops, audio or video in court is usually OK with me since a pen and a pad remain the cornerstone of my on-scene reporting tools. But the least the government can do is make a rule and put it in writing. That way we in the press know what rule to cite if and when we file a lawsuit on behalf of America’s right to know.
On Tuesday, all I had was the decision of one politically-appointed citizen with a little power trying to do his job and enforce what he believed to be the law.
Ok, I said, cameras not allowed. “Why?” I asked. The judge of elections seemed embarrassed. The state election code says so, he said. OK, I said. Can you show me the law in writing? He seemed even more embarrassed. No, he said, I don’t have the code.
Although he didn’t name his political bosses whom he said instructed him to ban cameras, he said he even excluded a press photographer who wanted to shoot U.S. Sen., Bob Casey Jr. when he voted earlier that morning.
I politely told the man that I wasn’t taking issue with him personally. He was just following orders. That revelation sent a quick chill up my spine. But I didn’t want the “judge” to think that I was provoking him. As a credentialed member of the press I was representing my profession as professionally as I knew how. But I also felt abused by being denied what I believe to be a constitutional right that more and more Americans take for granted or even scorn.
Journalists are no longer as trusted as we should be. Government bureaucrats regularly assault those small liberties that I and other serious members of the press take seriously. The more we passively roll over and follow orders ourselves, the more we lose of this experiment in which those of us who still believe call democracy.
I told the judge that I did not agree that a camera ban exists in the state election code. I said I understand that individual counties in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can regulate camera and cell phone usage but that a local regulation must exist to do so. I also said that I am under the impression that such a rule does not exist in Lackawanna County.
In other words, the official judge of elections was enforcing a rule that officially does not exist. And, in the absence of such a rule, I believe that I am being denied a precious right to gather and disseminate news to empower the public with information.
Sounds patriotic, huh? Who do I think I am, Thomas Paine? No, I’m just Corbett, one righteous pain in the electoral process. As always, principle matters. As long as ill-informed bureaucrats wield power they do not deserve nor understand, we become weaker as a community and as a nation. As long as we stand idly by and allow appointed public servants to abuse the privilege of public service even on the lowest rung of the political ladder, we fail in our common cause of strengthening the union of liberty and justice for all.
Press reports yesterday from across the country indicate that some election officials actually banned reporters as well as cameras from several polling places.
So I want to sue. I want to fight. I want somebody to officially rule in court, even against me, so I can appeal and appeal again and fight another day for my freedom. But who will represent me? Who will go to court on my behalf? Who will stand against this accepted oppression?
The United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania last week assigned ace federal prosecutor William Houser to oversee my polling place and others for federal election law violations. I set out to report on a couple of federal elections and was stopped in my tracks by an enforcer who had no real rule to enforce. But he enforced it anyway.
El Salvador? OK, I’m being a little dramatic. No death squad awaited outside the church where I voted. Nobody tried to throw me into the back of a van. But once the slippery slide begins, who knows where that slope will end? Isn’t rising against even the mere hint of tyranny what America stands for? Are we no longer proud people who stand against even the mere appearance of repression, especially when it comes to our precious Constitutional rights?
If Houser doesn’t help, maybe the ACLU will. If not them, maybe somebody else will take my back. Maybe The New York Times will send a lawyer. Maybe the Times Leader will again come to the rescue. Maybe not, though. Sad to say, I’m betting on maybe not.
No matter what happens, my experience at the polls needs to be addressed. When a law is enforced that is not on the books, another subjectively enforced mandate will soon arise and then another and another.