Image from the office of Rep. Paul Tonko, via Politico

This is probably not the way for the U.S. to regain our recent huge losses on the Press Freedom Index. Josh Fox, director of the Oscar-nominated (and Emmy-winning) documentary Gasland, was arrested this morning for trying to film a committee meeting about fracking.

The House Science Committee had convened to discuss the EPA’s findings about possible water contamination from fracking in an Ohio town, but evidently they weren’t interested in being recorded. An ABC News crew was turned away from the hearing, and Fox was ejected from the premises and arrested for “unlawful entry.”

Apparently the issue is that Fox doesn’t have appropriate press credentials, although if ABC News also doesn’t have them, one wonders what “appropriate press credentials” look like. Democratic Rep. Brad Miller wanted to toss out all the press credential hoop-jumping, and moved that “the fella who wanted to film for HBO be allowed to film this hearing and that ABC be allowed to film this hearing and all God’s children be allowed to film this hearing until the room is too full for us to conduct our business.” Which is adorable and makes me want to move to North Carolina’s 13th so I can vote for him. But the Republicans shot that down and recessed the hearing, and Fox was led out in handcuffs. He should have told them he was Fox news.

Update: Fox has released a 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.