In the Nebraska Examiner: Unicameral videos can strengthen First Amendment freedoms

In the Nebraska Examiner: Unicameral videos can strengthen First Amendment freedoms

Outlets like the Nebraska Examiner and the Flatwater Free Press exist because nonprofit foundations are recognizing that the traditional for-profit news model is in decline. Local newsrooms have been hollowed out around the country as media consumption habits have fundamentally changed. 

People can instantly find any information they might want — for good or ill — and fewer are planning their days around paper publications or nightly newscasts.

In this environment, one of the state’s most important democratic institutions lacks the thorough coverage it deserves, potentially leaving communities across Nebraska without a way to stay informed about their government.

The Nebraska Legislature is exceptional for holding a public hearing on every piece of legislation introduced. During this two-year legislative session, more than 1,200 bills have been considered. 

However, the Unicameral stands out in another way that is less impressive.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 46 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands provide an online recording archive of their legislative proceedings. Usually, these video or audio recordings are posted to a state website or a YouTube channel.

Nebraska is not among these states and territories, and especially now, our civic culture is weaker for it.

Checking on legislation

Although hearings and floor debate in the Legislature are streamed live by Nebraska Public Media, once legislative proceedings conclude, these video records simply disappear from public view.

Want to check what a legislator or lobbyist said about a bill that could impact your life or livelihood? Interested in sharing a recording of your support or opposition for legislation with your friends on social media? Unless your job or hobby involves manually recording meetings of the Legislature on your own device, you’re out of luck. 

This limits the quantity and quality of public affairs content in Nebraska based on what media outlets can manage to cover in a given day. There’s no timely way to catch up and show other Nebraskans what happened in numerous, simultaneous committee hearings — or even in a less-noticed moment of floor debate — unless a special request is made to the Office of the Clerk of the Nebraska Legislature, which maintains legislative records.

Sen. Tom Brewer’s Legislative Bill 777 would make recordings of legislative videos accessible to anyone who wants them through a searchable online archive. There was no opposition to the bill during its hearing before the Legislature’s Executive Board, and it received a Speaker Priority designation, which would allow it to move up the 2022 legislative agenda if it were advanced to full debate.

It would seem that I could stop writing my column at this point — surely everyone is in favor of this basic form of government transparency, which allows more Nebraskans to be aware of what lawmakers are doing.

Not all agree

If putting the Unicameral’s videos online is such a slam dunk, though, why hasn’t it happened after all these years? Don’t discount the possibility that LB 777 may still not pass unless you demand it.

Public hearings are not always heavily attended by Nebraska interest groups and voters. Often, they feature different branches and levels of government debating each other about legislation, and in these debates, the status quo usually wins. 

The state agencies currently involved with legislative videos have not gone out of their way to provide Nebraskans with this content. The Nebraska Educational Telecommunications Commission, which runs Nebraska Public Media, says the videos never belonged to their agency. The Office of the Clerk of the Legislature, which maintains an offline video recording archive, expressed concerns the videos would be used for campaign purposes or that the state would get in legal trouble over copyright or accessibility concerns.

Some members of the Legislature might also like not being closely monitored.

In a democracy that values free speech, freedom of the press and freedom of information, none of these is an acceptable reason for withholding access to recordings of public meetings funded by taxpayers. 

Anyone who spends time in the State Capitol knows Nebraska schoolchildren frequently visit to learn about their state’s history and system of government. But our civic education doesn’t end in our youth.

The news and history that’s happening right in front of us in Lincoln is being kept out of the view of the public, statewide media and even policymakers themselves. 

Posting easily sharable, timely and factual videos of the legislative process online can help familiarize more people with the work of the Legislature, and the many opportunities Nebraskans have for getting involved in the future of our state. 

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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