Dear Legal Mailbag:
Recently, my PTO held a meeting where they invited in a guest speaker to talk to parents about Internet safety, bullying and a variety of other age-appropriate topics. You know, the usual teenage stuff. There were about thirty parents present for the meeting. Without the knowledge of anyone in the audience, including school administrators and teachers, one of the parents was live-streaming the event over a social media website. During the meeting, the presenter made some unfortunate disparaging comments about a neighboring school district. At that point, one of the administrators present interrupted and tried to change the tone and direction of the conversation. In the midst of all this, the parent (and would-be-Academy-awarding-winning camera operator) zoomed in on the administrator and captured most of the dialogue.
The administrator was informed after the meeting that she had been recorded and broadcast, and she was quite upset at what she felt was an invasion of her privacy. Does the PTO have an obligation to inform all present that they were being broadcast live over the Internet? Does your answer change if this happened at a school function like Open House? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clear answer when I reviewed Connecticut’s voyeurism laws and eavesdropping laws.
A Principal Not Looking for a Film Career!
Dear Camera Shy:
Thank you for your question. I wish I had better news. Even from the quiet solitude of the Legal Mailbag office, it offends Legal Mailbag to think that a parent could secretly record a PTO meeting or even Open House, let alone then stream it live over the Internet! Unfortunately, our laws have not kept up with technological changes, and at times we can be subject to intrusive conduct without clear recourse.
Kudos to you for reading the statutes, and from that reading you probably gleaned that this parent’s actions fit neither voyeurism nor eavesdropping as defined in the statutes. The essence of voyeurism is an expectation of privacy. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-189 provides in part that a person is guilty of voyeurism if “with malice, such person knowingly photographs, films, videotapes or otherwise records the image of another person (A) without the knowledge and consent of such other person, (B) while such other person is not in plain view, and (C) under circumstances where such other person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.” The other definitions of voyeurism are somewhat R-rated and describe despicable conduct, a description of which has no place in Legal Mailbag.
The statute that prohibits “eavesdropping” comes closer, but still misses the mark. It defines eavesdropping as including wiretapping as well as “mechanical overhearing of a conversation,” which the statute defines as “the intentional overhearing or recording of a conversation or discussion, without the consent of at least one party thereto, by a person not present thereat, by means of any instrument, device or equipment.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-187. Notably, this parent’s rude recording of people without their knowledge was not “eavesdropping” because the person making the recording was present and consented to the recording.
Given the foregoing, neither the PTO nor you would have recourse against this parent under the criminal statutes. However, you would be free to establish and convey rules against making and sharing such recordings because such conduct could interfere with parent participation. I can well imagine that a parent who has a question at a PTO meeting or at Open House may think twice about asking a question or sharing personal experiences if he or she knows that such questions or comments are being recorded and shared. Accordingly, the sponsor of such a meeting can announce that such recording is not appropriate and is prohibited. While enforcement of that prohibition may be a challenge, you may establish expectations and possibly even change behavior by announcing such a rule.
Finally, please know that legal rights and expectations at a board of education meeting (or meeting of any other public agency) are very different. The Freedom of Information Act expressly provides that members of the public may record and/or broadcast public meetings. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-226.