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Noncoms Take Issue With Park Filming Proposal

Public Broadcasters are not happy with a U.S. Forest Service directive on vetting filming requests in national parks, arguing it would be illegal content-based regulation.

While they are fine with leaving the wilderness untrammeled, they also don't want the Forest Service to run roughshod over the Consitution. In a filing Thursday, the groups ask the Forest Service to recraft the directive, and warn there could be legal action if that does not happen.

The service is proposing issuing a directive that officials evaluate TV and film project that want to use public lands on whether they have a "primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features."

That, says a coalition of noncoms including CPB, PBS and NPR, and the Association of Public Television Stations, would be tantamount to government officials making content-based judgments about whether to issue permits.

And as to charging for such content calls: "[I]nsofar as the proposed directive entails permit fees," they argue, "any costs imposed as a general matter must be content- and speaker neutral, may not impose inconsistent or discriminatory fees on First Amendment activities, and may not “tax” expression by recovering more than the costs of the permitting regime."

The Forest Service is proposing to modify its handbook to create national criteria for issuing permits for commercial filming on National Forest Service land, based on the presumption that prior directives did not provide sufficient guidance for filming in congressionally designated wilderness areas.

In addition to insuring filming "will not cause unacceptable resource damage, disrupt public use and enjoyment of the site, or pose a health or safety risk," the proposal goes beyond that to require that affirmative finding about primary objectives, say the noncoms.

There is a carve-out for breaking news, but the permit covers TV and film, including documentaries.

The groups gave Forest Service chief Thomas Tidwell props for recognizing the tension between the first Amendment and protecting park lands and for saying that the directive is not meant to discourage appropriate use, including commercial filming.

"We appreciate the Chief’s efforts to reach out to the affected communities, and agree with his ultimate point [in a Nov. 4 memorandum] that whether a permit is required should be tied to impact on the land; and where the activity 'presents no more impact on the land than that of the general public,' it should be exempt from permit requirements. However, as Chief Tidwell acknowledged, the significant concerns that have been raised in this proceeding go 'beyond the intended scope of the directive.'"