DES MOINES — State lawmakers are working on a bill that would immediately ban government entities in Iowa from installing video or audio monitoring devices in public bathrooms, locker rooms or showers in locations such as libraries, schools or other government offices.
Senate Study Bill 1184, which won unanimous support in a Senate Government Oversight subcommittee Tuesday, was drafted in response to a situation at the Iowa City Public Library where video cameras were installed in the library’s public restrooms as a theft deterrent.
That action has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, and lawmakers agreed the monitoring devices raised a privacy concern and should not be allowed in facilities under the jurisdiction of state or local governmental entities.
“I think that people are entitled to assume a certain degree of privacy, and it’s assumed that you have a certain degree of privacy inside a restroom or public facility,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines. “I think this is a good decision based upon what we know has occurred over in Iowa City, and I think that we should protect the public.”
Iowa City Public Library Director Susan Craig said the bathroom cameras, which do not record inside stalls, are a safety feature for the library. She said in the past the cameras have helped police make arrests in cases such as theft and assault crimes.
She added that in the summer months, the library can see about 20,000 visitors per week and often serves as a public restroom for those visiting downtown Iowa City.
“I think that in public bathrooms that serve the number and diversity of people that ours serve, bad things happen. They can happen and the cameras are a deterrent and help keep people safe,” Craig said.
In January, the ACLU of Iowa sent the library a five-page letter asking staff to either remove the cameras or improve its signage to better explain areas where the cameras are recording. Since then, Craig said the library board reviewed the letter and reaffirmed the camera use in the restrooms.
“The board believes the present installation of security cameras is entirely consistent with the preservation of reasonable expectations of privacy, and is too important a tool in the protection of taxpayer dollars and patron safety to surrender,” according to a February letter to the ACLU from Assistant City Attorney Eric Goers.
The letter did, however, say the board agreed to improve the wording of signs informing the public to “security cameras video record bathroom sink area.” Signs outside the restrooms previously said “security cameras in use.”
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said another concern about such cameras is that the recorded footage is subject to open records laws because it was created by a government agency.
“Because these recordings are being made by a government entity, they are subject to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and so you’re talking about naked babies being subject to FOIA requests and that’s just not OK,” Sinclair said during Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting.
The bill prohibits the state or a political subdivision from using a closed-circuit monitoring device in a toilet, bath or shower facility; locker room; or others place such as a changing table where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Sen. Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, the bill’s manager in subcommittee, said the bill requires that upon passage by the Legislature and receiving the governor’s signature, all government entities using such monitoring devices cease doing so and remove them by July 1.
The bill nullifies any local ordinance, rule or other measure that permits the use of monitoring devices in the aforementioned areas, he added.
“If you’re in a public restroom, you should have an expectation that you’re not being videotaped. Any government, whether it’s a municipality or a public library or a subdivision, should not have the authority or the power to film someone while they’re changing their baby or anything like that in a public restroom,” said Pete McRoberts, an ACLU lobbyist.
If the cameras were installed to address a theft situation, he added, there are other ways to address the issue that don’t involve taking videotapes of people in a private setting.
“The concern that we had here is there are video records being made of people in various stages of undress, including children, and we very much believe that should never be allowed to happen by any government entity or any private entity, and yet it is — hence the urgency,” McRoberts told subcommittee members. “It’s damaging to people. You can identify who the people are; you can identify the privacy interests that are being violated.”
Senate Study Bill 1184 now goes to the full Government Oversight Committee for consideration.
— Gazette reporter Maddy Arnold contributed to this report
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