Josh Fox, the director of the 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary Gasland that looked at the dangers posed by the process for recovering natural gas from the ground known as fracking, was arrested yesterday in Washington DC after he and a film crew attempted to record a public meeting of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment concerning the controversial procedure.
The Huffington Post is reporting that Republican Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-Md.) ordered Capital Hill police to remove Fox and his film crew over the protests of Democratic members of the committee including Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), the ranking Democrat. Huffington Post obtained and posted this video of the arrest.
Fox was charged with unlawful entry and released. The director has released a statement, which is below.
Gasland made a powerful argument that the process of fracking, which pumps a mixture of chemicals into underground shale beds in order to crack them open to release natural gas, is much more dangerous than the companies using the process will admit. Homes in many of the communities from the northeast area of Pennsylvania from where Fox is from are unable to use their own well water due to contaminants that have leaked into them from nearby fracking rigs. This is illustrated mosteffectively in the film by a man who can set his tap water on fire due to the unnatural flammable chemicals that are now in his well.
Although anyone can come and observe a subcommittee hearing, proper press accreditation is required to photograph or record them. Fox stated that he did attempt to obtain proper accreditation through Harris’s office, but his calls were not returned.
Huffington Post goes on to point out that these rules are very seldom enforced and that there were other options available instead of removal and arrest including the issuance of temporary credentials or at most the confiscation of the cameras. The outlet also quotes Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU in Washington,as saying-
Congressional committees routinely allow professional journalists to record hearings even when they don’t have official press credentials, and excluding a journalist because he doesn’t share the political views of the committee chair is outrageous. The Supreme Court has explained many times that censorship based on viewpoint is the clearest kind of First Amendment violation, and that seems to be what happened here.
It certainly seems as if Harris went above and beyond the means at his disposal in responding to Fox’s presence at the meeting, which certainly can lead to the appearance that the congressman looks as if he is trying to hide something about the committee meeting. Given that I live less than an hour from Fox’s own home, I am one of the thousands, if not millions of those affected by the issue of how fracking can pollute the surrounding groundwater. Billions of dollars are at stake in the fracking and natural gas industry and Fox did not make many friends with his film in both the industry and in the halls of government. It is hard not to interpret Harris’s actions today as anything but retaliation.
Here is Fox’s post-arrest statement-
I was arrested today for exercising my First Amendment rights to freedom of the press on Capitol Hill. I was not expecting to be arrested for practicing journalism. Today’s hearing in the House Energy and Environment subcommittee was called to examine EPAs findings that hydraulic fracturing fluids had contaminated groundwater in the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. I have a long history with the town of Pavillion and its residents who have maintained since 2008 that fracking has contaminated their water supply. I featured the stories of residents John Fenton, Louis Meeks and Jeff Locker in GASLAND and I have continued to document the catastrophic water contamination in Pavillion for the upcoming sequel GASLAND 2. It would seem that the Republican leadership was using this hearing to attack the three year Region 8 EPA investigation involving hundreds of samples and extensive water testing which ruled that Pavillion’s groundwater was a health hazard, contaminated by benzene at 50x the safe level and numerous other contaminants associated with gas drilling. Most importantly, EPA stated in this case that fracking was the likely cause.
As a filmmaker and journalist I have covered hundreds of public hearings, including Congressional hearings. It is my understanding that public speech is allowed to be filmed. Congress should be no exception. No one on Capitol Hill should regard themselves exempt from the Constitution. The First Amendment to the Constitution states explicitly “Congress shall make no law…that infringes on the Freedom of the Press”. Which means that no subcommittee rule or regulation should prohibit a respectful journalist or citizen from recording a public hearing.
This was an act of civil disobedience, yes done in an impromptu fashion, but at the moment when they told me to turn off the cameras, I could not. I know my rights and I felt it was imperative to exercise them.
When I was led out of the hearing room in handcuffs, John Boehner’s pledge of transparency in congress was taken out with me.
The people of Pavillion deserve better. The thousands across the US who have documented cases of water contamination in fracking areas deserve their own hearing on Capitol hill. They deserve the chance to testify in before Congress. The truth that fracking contaminates groundwater is out, and no amount of intimidation tactics –either outright challenges to science or the arrest of journalists –will put the genie back in the bottle. Such a brazen attempt to discredit and silence the EPA, the citizens of Pavillion and documentary filmmaking will ultimately fail and it is an affront to the health and integrity of Americans.
Lastly, in defense of my profession, I will state that many many Americans get their news from independent documentaries. The hill should immediately move to make hearings and meetings accessible to independent journalists and not further obstruct the truth from being reported in the vivid and in depth manner that is only achievable through long form documentary filmmaking.
I will be thinking on this event further and will post further thoughts and developments.
I have been charged with “unlawful entry” and my court date is February 15.