Dec. 15 2010 10:20 AM

The battle over the right to record


A public-interest law firm representing conservative activist James O'Keefe is challenging the California law that bars people from secretly recording private conversations.

In 2009, O'Keefe made national headlines when he and a female cohort posed as a pimp and prostitute and visited offices of the nonprofit group acorn around the country. Using a hidden camera, they captured footage that made it seem like acorn workers were collaborating in human trafficking. California attorney General Jerry Brown granted O'Keefe immunity from the state's privacy laws in exchange for the chance to review the footage.

Brown's investigation found that Juan Carlos Vera, a National City acorn employee fired after the tapes aired, did nothing wrong and that the video had been edited to distort what happened. In July, Vera filed a $75,000 lawsuit against O'Keefe under the Invasion of Privacy Act, which requires all parties in a confidential conversation to consent to a recording.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights is defending O'Keefe in several lawsuits. In California, CIR General Counsel Michael Rosman is prepared to argue that the law infringes on the press' freedom to gather information. He adds that the law doesn't prevent anyone from talking or writing about confidential conversations, so it really only serves to shield liars.

“I can say, ‘Dave misquoted me,' and if you don't have a recording, I can say that with impunity,” Rosman says. “Basically, I have the right to lie about this conversation. That's what the statute is trying to protect.”

David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, which litigates for privacy as well as free speech, doesn't see that argument working.

“The California Privacy Act is carefully limited to confidential communications,” Blair-Loy writes via e-mail.

“The First Amendment protects the right to record events in public but does not authorize invasion of legally protected privacy rights…. Both free press and privacy rights are constitutionally protected and must be balanced. Occasionally, the right to privacy prevails.”

California broadcasters bemoan the law since it bans an investigative technique used frequently in other states. Greg Dawson, news director for NBC 7/39, says he'd like to do consumer reporting using hidden cameras, such as evaluating whether repairmen are appropriately repairing furnaces at honest prices.

Dawson notes the law applies only to audio, so secret video can be useful. David Gotfredson, an investigative journalist for Channel 8, says a reporter can get away with hidden recordings, as long as the conversations occur in public.

“Right now, we kind of learn to work around it,” Gotfredson says. “If we're trying to do an investigation, we might do it in a public place, where there are people around, or an outdoor setting where there's not an expectation of having a private conversation.”

Calendar

  • Visit one of the 70 participating restaurants, bars, coffeehouses and nightclubs in town on this night and 25 to 50 percent of sales will go to local HIV/AIDS services and prevention programs. 
  • Anthony Bernal and Chris Ward, who are vying to replace Todd Gloria on the San Diego City Council, will discuss urban issues, such as parking, homelessness and new developments
  • The new exhibition designed by Dave Ghilarducci is made from hundreds of rolls of packing tape and bound together by layers of plastic shrink-wrap. Visitors can navigate their way through cocoon-like passageways...
  • The renowned Mexican black and white photographer presents an exhibition exploring the principal themes within three groups: "Bestiarium"," Fantastic Women" and "Silent Natures."
  • Presented by Pacific Arts Movement, the sixth annual mini film fest features 14 film programs from 10 countries that includes everything from docs to romantic tearjerkers. See website for full lineup and...
  • The San Diego County Bike Coalition hosts this monthly bike-in happy hour event to get biking residents involved in their communities and discuss bike projects planned for that specific community
  • Debunk some of the stereotypes surrounding cannibalism at this new exhibition that takes a hands-on approach to the subject. Includes video games and interactive activities where patrons will have to decide...
  • So Say We All's monthly storytelling night features stories about those jobs we took because we had to take a job. Featured readers include Allison Gauss, Annmarie Houghtailing, Cecile Estelle, and more
  • Artists from the all-abstracts group show will talk about their work and techniques. Artists include Edwin Nutting, Danielle Nelisse, Leah Pantea, Lenore Simon, and more
See all events on Thursday, Apr 28