Voting largely along party lines, the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives approved new fines on Tuesday against lawmakers who use electronic devices to take pictures or broadcast from the chamber, prompting a barrage of flashes as Democrats snapped photos in defiance of the rules.
Majority Leader Paul Ryan proposed the fines in response to one of the most dramatic moments in the House last year, when Democrats staged a sit-in to push for a vote on gun control measures in the wake of June's Pulse nightclub shooting. After Ryan cut camera feeds to the House floor, lawmakers used apps like Periscope to livestream their protest — footage that C-SPAN and other networks ultimately aired.
According to the new rules, representatives who use electronic devices on the House floor "for still photography or for audio or visual recording or broadcasting" will be fined $US500 ($688) by the sergeant-at-arms for their first offence and $US2500 ($3438) for any subsequent offence. At that rate, the fines are largely symbolic and Democrats vowed to defy the rules one lawmaker denounced as "unprecedented and unconstitutional".
"I'm not afraid. I've been fined before. Many of us have been fined before," said Representative John Lewis, a former Freedom Rider who organised last year's sit-in, according to Politico. "We cannot and will not be silenced."
Amid those concerns of constitutionality, Republicans added a mechanism to the rules on Monday allowing lawmakers to contest the fines. But in a letter to Ryan released by Democrats on Tuesday, 35 law professors said they believed there were still "significant constitutional and policy problems" with the proposal.
"The unprecedented delegation of the House punishment power to an administrative officer is designed to restrict activity that is at the core of the First Amendment freedom of speech," wrote the scholars affiliated with universities like Harvard and Georgetown. "The rules would sharply limit the ability of Members to video record proceedings on the House floor, offending the spirit if not the text of these constitutional requirements. In this regard, we would note that federal courts have previously held there is a First Amendment right to video record city council proceedings."
Ryan has not directly commented on the new fines, but last month a spokesperson told reporters in a statement the rule changes would "help ensure that order and decorum are preserved in the House of Representatives so lawmakers can do the people's work".