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Badge of Haughty

Let me just say this right up-front and get it out there: I’m better than you. Why? Because I have a press card and you don’t.

I’ve seen reporters use theirs to get free admission to sporting events, sit in the press box and eat the free food. Even if they weren’t covering the game. Free concerts. Free parking.

I saw a Web site (which, incidentally, sells press cards) that says reporters can use their cards to get free hotel rooms and get the best tables at restaurants. Maybe I should try that.

I do know my card will get me into City Hall. I just walk in the employee entrance (although I’m not a city employee) with my press card on a string around my neck. I’m in. And you thought you could do that too? No. You, the member of the public, have to line up outside. You wait to pass through the metal detectors. You get your driver’s license scanned. You stick on one of those silly tags that says “Visitor.” In your own City Hall. Sucker.

Now it turns out you may need a press card once you’re inside City Hall, at least if you want to exercise any of your rights. Just ask Jeff Fleiss.

Fleiss has been videotaping meetings of the Los Angeles Board of Animal Services Commissioners for seven or eight months with the hope of airing the tape somewhere, maybe the city’s own Channel 35, or maybe a public-access station. Once or twice a month he would set up his tripod in a corner of the commission’s meeting room in a 1920s Spring Street office building and record the proceedings, to give members of the public who can’t get downtown a chance to see what’s going on.

He’s usually not alone. Animal-rights activist Pamlyn Ferdin often taped the sessions as well, standing in the same corner as Fleiss, with her hand-held camera up to her eye.

Not everyone in the “city family,” as employees and commissioners often call themselves, was crazy about being taped, especially since footage shot by Ferdin often ends up on her Animal Defense League Web site and other sites that sharply criticize city officials and policies. But what could they do? They’re public meetings.

Then, in May, the commission began meeting in City Hall, where videotaping by the public apparently is unwelcome. At the last meeting, Ferdin (or her video camera, at least) was booted from the meeting and ended up in the hallway, where Ferdin recited to a patient but unyielding guard from the Brown Act (“Any person attending an open and public meeting of a legislative body of a local agency shall have the right to record the proceedings with an audio or video tape recorder or a still or motion picture camera . . .”).

Fleiss, too, was told he couldn’t set up his tripod and tape. Unless, of course, he gets himself a press card.

Now, you can buy a card over the Internet, but I think what the guard meant was that to tape inside City Hall, Brown Act be damned, you need to apply for and get an LAPD press card. Background check. Fingerprints. It is, let’s be honest about it, a revocable government license that purports to govern your exercise of your First Amendment free-press rights.

The problem is that the LAPD doesn’t have to give it to you. It gets to decide whether you and your news organization are “legitimate.” Big TV station? Sure, here’s your card. Guy printing up pamphlets and passing them out on the street? Nope, sorry.

There apparently is no new city regulation that permits officials to start demanding press cards in City Hall when it suits their purposes, but it is not surprising that a commissioner or department official believes that’s the case. It is a common misperception that members of the “organized” news media — the ones with corporate offices and LAPD press cards — have special rights not enjoyed by others. In fact, the First Amendment applies just as forcefully to the guy handing out pamphlets, or the blogger, or the person who wants to videotape a public meeting.

And the Ralph M. Brown open-meeting law, Sec. 54953.5 (a), gives people like Fleiss the right to tape, as long as they don’t get in anyone’s way, whether or not they have a press card.

After checking in with the city attorney last week for “clarification,” as Animal Services assistant general manager Regina Adams put it, the commission discovered that they, too, had to follow the Brown Act and permit taping. That means Fleiss won’t have to get a press card after all.

Still might be handy to have one, though, in case you’re thinking about exercising your rights somewhere else in City Hall.


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