The Kansas State Legislature has altered video footage of a recent hearing to omit a profane rant targeting a journalist, raising questions about the editing of public records.
On Saturday, at a hearing held by the state’s Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19, Justin Spiehs testified before the committee to criticize mask and vaccine requirements. At the end of his testimony, he launched into a tirade against Kansas Reflector editor-in-chief Sherman Smith, telling him to “go f— yourself, you little b—-” and calling him a “snarky motherf—-er.”
Smith, who was not in the room, said his only contact with Spiehs had been over email. A few months ago, Spiehs asked the Reflector to cover his anti-mask protests outside of the Lawrence city public schools. Smith declined.
That Saturday afternoon, Smith watched the video of the hearing — rant included — on the Kansas Legislature’s website. But when he checked the website on Monday, the original recording was gone. The new video omits the tirade entirely.
The recording uploaded to the Kansas Legislature’s YouTube channel contains video footage of Spiehs’ entire speech, but the audio of his rant is missing. Instead, there is 28 seconds of silence.
It is unclear why the video was edited or who made the decision to remove the rant. The Legislative Administrative Services, which is responsible for uploading videos of hearings, did not respond to a request for comment. Director Tom Day told The Topeka Capital-Journal that he did not know who edited the video and that he was not aware of any policies governing when such recordings should be edited.
“It’s concerning … because we don’t know who is making these decisions or why or what standards they’re applying,” Smith said. “Whether it’s politically motivated or if there’s an actual policy that’s behind this, we need to understand why this is happening.”
Smith said he contacted Legislative Administrative Services and was told that the only existing copy of the video is the edited version that appears on the department’s website. He filed an open records request for the original video, and on Thursday, he received a link to an unlisted YouTube video containing the unedited recording.
Unofficial recordings of the hearing that show the rant in its entirety are also available on YouTube.
The decision to edit out the rant may have been a “well-intentioned” attempt to keep a personal attack private, Smith said, but the public should still have access to the unedited footage.
“To me, the important issue here is the video itself being altered and not what somebody wants to say about me,” he said. “I think it’s important to understand what their reasons were and to make sure that even if they don’t want this to be streaming on a public platform, that the public still has access to the full video in some way.”
Keeping accurate online records is especially important during a pandemic when access to meetings might be limited, Smith said. Some people may not feel safe attending an in-person hearing, meaning they are limited to the records available online.
Journalists, too, depend on accurate public records. They may not always be available to attend every meeting, so it is important that they have access to complete footage of public hearings.
The incident has also attracted attention from local lawmakers. In a reply to a tweet by Smith about the video, Kansas state representative Stephanie Byers mentioned a similar incident that had happened in the spring.
“When the KS House debated the ban on girls, who happen to be trans, affirming their identity in sports bill, none of it was archived on video. There’s no video record of anything after 10pm that night,” she tweeted.
Smith said the incident has made statehouse journalists in Kansas much more aware of potential issues with public records being altered.
“It’s a conversation now among everybody really in the statehouse realm of what’s happening, and I think that if this happens again, it’ll be an immediate issue, or like we won’t find out about it six months later, like we did in these other cases.”