Oh Say, Can't We See?

First, the good news: You can still trip the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York. Now the bad: You may have to get a permit and a million dollars of insurance if you want to film it.

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting is considering rules that would require two or more videographers who want to film on public property using a hand-held camera to get a permit and insurance if they are going to be there more than a half-hour. If your group is five or more and you want to set up a tripod, a permit would be required for as little as 10 minutes.

The NYCLU complains that, while this proposal attempts to exempt tourists and other amateurs, it would likely sweep into the net casual photography or videotape, violating the First Amendment freedom to film in public places.

It could also put a crimp in the growing social-networking–video movement. Clearly, the government doesn't know what to do with this video and is unclear about what status to accord it. Knee-jerk protectionism, however, is not the right course.

There is some irony in the confluence of government threats to the free flow of information occurring around the Fourth of July, when we are supposed to be celebrating hard-won freedoms to speak and publish.

Talk radio's success at helping scuttle an immigration-reform bill had Democrats threatening over the past few weeks to attempt to restore the fairness doctrine, which would require broadcasters to air both sides of issues of public importance. It sounds fair enough, but it was really government-compelled speech in sheep's clothing.

Then there was the news last week that some government agencies weren't coming clean with Congress on the age of unanswered Freedom of Information requests, with a host of them more than 15 years old and one of them 20. Those requests are supposed to be responded to in 20 days.

The same Justice Department that has been opposing a bill to toughen FOIA-request oversight across all government agencies apparently couldn't keep its own house in order. According to the study of FOIA requests released by George Washington University, Justice claimed to Congress that its own oldest request was from 2003. But even in that instance, the study turned up one from 2001.

We understand the concerns about videotaping in New York and protecting government information in the post-9/11 world. But that concern must not trump the freedoms we are fighting for.