Raleigh, N.C. — The Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Office confiscated the recorder of a reporter during an open Senate Commerce Committee meeting Tuesday, after the committee chairman made an announcement that runs counter to North Carolina's open meetings statute.
"One other housekeeping (item), if I may. As a courtesy, all individuals with recording devices, whether audio or video, are required to be approved by the sergeant-at-arms," Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, said roughly 45 minutes into the two-hour meeting.
A minute or so after that announcement, Rose Hoban, a reporter with North Carolina Health News, noticed that her recorder, which she had placed on a side table, was missing.
"I've never been restricted from recording before," said Hoban, who was a reporter for WUNC Radio before starting N.C. Health News in 2011.
She had to leave the meeting to retrieve her recorder. During the interim, several reporters asked questions about the action and announcement over social media. WRAL News asked Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's office whether there was some sort of new policy. A spokeswoman for Berger referred questions back to Gunn.
Mike Tadych, a lawyer who works for a number of media outlets, said the state's open meetings laws provides that they may be recorded.
"Presuming that you're in a meeting that's to be open under North Carolina law, there should be no additional requirement to have recording equipment approved," Tadych said.
Members of the press who have covered the legislature for years cannot remember such a rule being enforced.
Gunn could not cite a building rule or law that would have justified his announcement.
"The sergeant-at-arms department just likes people to identify," he said.
Asked a followup question about how that might be a legal request, Gunn walked away, referring questions to the sergeant-at-arms.
However, during a committee meeting, the sergeant-at-arms staff work at the direction of the committee chairman.
Pressed a third time, with several more reporters watching, and asked specifically why he authorized a recorder to be confiscated, Gunn said, "I was simply, I thought – I think everyone should be open, and I certainly did not in any way intend cause that."
Philip King, the Senate sergeant-at-arms who oversees the staff that works during meetings, said he could not speak immediately as to why the recorder was taken or what happened during the committee meeting. He did say that his staff had been more vigilant after recorders were discovered in meeting rooms before and after committees were convened.
"We have had situations where we thought the recording device was placed there at a time that was not a public meeting," King said, worried that the objective might be to catch a lawmaker in an off-the-cuff moment.
Later in the day, Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the Senate Rules chairman, confirmed there was no building rule or other legislative rule that would required reporters or members of the public to register their recording devices with the sergeant at arms staff. He confirmed King's statement that there had been concerns about people leaving recording devices and other equipment around the building, but no rule banned taping meeting.
Apodaca said Gunn "misinterpreted" those concerns, leading to his actions Tuesday.