AUGUSTA (AP) — A group of legislators concerned with political groups taking their words out of context has begun exploring whether lawmakers can copyright audio recordings of public hearings.
The little-known panel has spent the last year mulling what to do with the archived audio recordings. Some legislators have called for immediately deleting the recordings while others want to continue retaining them but worry about the potential for sound bites to be politicized.
Senate Republican leader Garrett Mason said the state shouldn’t have to retain the public’s testimony forever, and that lawmakers are unwittingly opening “a nasty little box.”
“This is just another way for nastiness on either end to be propagated,” he said, referring to the use of audio clips in political campaigns.
Last week, the Legislative Council’s state house facilities committee agreed to study the cost of adding a copyright or disclaimer to the audio, despite criticism from the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, public access advocates and media companies like Sun Media Group and Maine Today Media.
In a May 19 letter to the committee, the advocates called the idea of the state copyrighting “public proceedings produced with public funds in order to protect them from the people” unprecedented and harmful.
“These are unquestionably public records which the public has an absolute right to access,” the letter said.
Copyright laws “should not be used to protect legislators and other public servants from their own comments,” said John Brautigam, a consultant and former state representative.
“There is a simple solution for legislators who fear having their own words quoted back to them: don’t say something you can’t defend,” he said.
In states like Wisconsin and Maine, public broadcasters that stream legislative proceedings prohibit the use of their material for commercial or political purposes. Broadcasters themselves can sue over copyright violations that don’t fall under “fair use” allowed by U.S. copyright law.
On the national stage, C-SPAN’s coverage of congressional hearings is copyrighted under a relaxed policy, but it has declined to sue over its footage used in political ads.
Maine House Democratic leader Erin Herbig said she doesn’t “feel terribly comfortable with” immediately deleting audio recordings, but said they have already “been used negatively to disparage members, to malign people’s positions.”
The state’s Republican Party in March posted on its website audio snippets of Democrats on the Legislature’s health and human services committee. Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas claimed the audio revealed “out of touch” liberals saying Maine workers couldn’t handle “backbreaking work” and accusing GOP Gov. Paul LePage’s administration of racism.
The party didn’t respond to request for comment Wednesday.
Herbig said for her, the trend is worrisome.
“I worry about how that changes our committee dynamic and how that changes the conversation people are having when people are deciding public policy,” she said.
Mason said that adding a copyright to audio recordings of committee hearings would “probably be the best thing to do,” even though, he added: “It may not have a lot of teeth to it.”