Pubcasters object to U.S. Forest Service proposal for wilderness filming permits

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Six public broadcasting organizations filed joint comments Wednesday with the U.S. Forest Service protesting proposed special-use permits and fees for still photography and filming on National Forest Service lands.

“The version of the commercial filming directive currently proposed suffers from significant constitutional infirmities,” the organizations said in the document. “Were it to be enacted without revision, it would be subject to serious legal challenges” and could infringe the First Amendment rights of journalists, filmmakers and photographers, they said.

Joining forces on the filing are the Association of Public Television Stations, CPB, NPR, PBS and two stations that produce wilderness programming, Idaho Public Television and Oregon Public Broadcasting. Attorney Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C., a First Amendment expert, wrote the 38-page document.

The Forest Service announced in September that it was seeking comments on a proposed directive that would require media organizations to obtain permits and pay fees before filming in wilderness areas. Such regulations have been in place on an interim basis since 2010 but enforced only erratically, according to broadcasters.

The public broadcasters make six recommendations in the filing, including allowing photography, filming, and sound recording if it does not impact the land; adopting objective standards for determining impact, such as number of production crew members or amount of equipment; and exempting public broadcasters from fees associated with the permitting process.

“Public broadcasters have experienced under existing directives and rules a discretionary permit process where government officials delay — or deny outright — permission to film and photograph, in violation of the constitutional bar on prior restraints,” the filing notes. “Forest Service employees are vested with broad discretion to arbitrarily pick and choose among First Amendment activities — with no discernible government interest guiding them — and to make distinctions that are not based on impact to the land.”

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