The First Amendment protects our right to use electronic devices to record on-duty police officers, according to a new ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Fields v. Philadelphia. This right extends to anyone with a recording device, journalists and members of the public alike. And this right includes capture of photos, videos, and audio recordings.
EFF filed an amicus brief seeking this ruling. We argued that people routinely use their electronic devices to record and share images and audio, and that this often includes newsworthy recordings of on-duty police officers interacting with members of the public.
[...] The Third Circuit erred on the issue of "qualified immunity." This is a legal doctrine that protects government employees from paying money damages for violating the Constitution, if the specific right at issue was not clearly established at the time they violated it. In Fields, the Third Circuit unanimously held that going forward, the First Amendment protects the right to record the police. But the majority held that this right was not clearly established at the time the police officers in the case violated this right.
According to Slate, similar rulings have been issued in the First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits. The new decision addressed two cases in Philadelphia:
Friday's decision involved two instances in which the Philadelphia police retaliated against citizens attempting to film them. In the first incident, a legal observer named Amanda Geraci tried to film police arresting an anti-fracking protester when an officer pinned her against a pillar, preventing her from recording the arrest. In the second, a Temple University sophomore named Richard Fields tried to film police officers breaking up a house party when an officer asked him whether he "like[d] taking pictures of grown men" and demanded that he leave. When Fields refused, the officer arrested and detained him, confiscating his phone and looking through its photos and videos. The officer cited Fields for "Obstructing Highway and Other Public Passages," although the charges were dropped when the officer failed to appear at a court hearing. Geraci and Fields filed civil rights suits against the officers who interfered with their filming attempts.
Writing for the court, Judge Thomas Ambro agreed that both Geraci and Fields held a constitutional right to record the police—a right that officers violated in both instances. "The First Amendment protects the public's right of access to information about their officials' public activities," Ambro wrote. This access "is particularly important because it leads to citizen discourse" on public and political issues, the most highly valued First Amendment activity. Thus, the government is constitutionally barred from "limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw."
Anything you say or do may be uploaded to YouTube.
The Boston Globe has a story out about a ruling in US District court this week that narrows the scope of a 50-year old Massachusetts law that restricted recording of police and other government officials.
The law, and similar ones still in effect in 10 other states, was implemented long before the advent of now ubiquitous cell phones. It and similar laws criminalized recordings made of police and public officials in public even in performance of their duties, as felonies and have caught large numbers of individuals, activists, and journalists doing the same thing they always do in their net. (Most states are covered already by rulings which find such recording legal on first amendment grounds.)
But a ruling issued Monday by US District Court Judge Patti Saris found, "On the core constitutional issue, the Court holds that secret audio recording of government officials, including law enforcement officials, performing their duties in public is protected by the First Amendment, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions." And so, she added, the law "is unconstitutional in those circumstances."
The attorney general's office is reviewing the decision so challenge or appeal may still be forthcoming. However, as the Globe notes
this is one law whose time has come and gone. Challenges to the law go back to at least 2001, when a spirited dissent in a case then before the Supreme Judicial Court insisted that the "legislative intent" was to regulate government surveillance, not that of private citizens trying to monitor police conduct in a public place.
This case was clearly a win for greater transparency — and that's all to the good. It should be allowed to stand.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Maybe now we can, just a little bit more, in Massachusetts.
Good one Skippy.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit covers the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, the second most populous state. The court has issued a decision that clearly establishes the right to record police, which did not previously exist in the Fifth Circuit.
The plaintiff, Phillip Turner, was recording a Fort Worth police station (6:35 YouTube) from a public sidewalk (known as a "First Amendment audit") when officers approached him and asked for identification. Turner refused to ID himself and was eventually handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. Turner was released at the scene and later filed charges against three officers (amended to include the City of Fort Worth) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The officers moved to dismiss the case, claiming qualified immunity, which was granted by the district court. The Fifth Circuit has affirmed, reversed, and remanded portions of the district court's decision in what can be considered an overall win for Mr. Turner (10:59 YouTube).
From Cornell's Legal Information Institute, "the Supreme Court [has] held that courts considering officials' qualified immunity claims do not need to consider whether or not the officials actually violated a plaintiff's right if it is clear that the right was not clearly established". In Turner v. Driver, the appeals court has upheld the qualified immunity claims related to the First Amendment because the right to record police was not clearly established in the Fifth Circuit. Although the right to record police was not clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct in September 2015, the decision also clearly establishes that right from now on: