Whip out those cell phones and video cameras – we have great news!
It’s official, and the message to public servants is clear – Americans’ right to video record police while they are executing their duties in a public venue fits comfortably within first amendment activity:
Hear ye, hear ye!!
The First Circuit Court of Appeals–the highest federal court for New England just below the U.S. Supreme Court–last Friday handed down a ground-breaking decision defending our right to videotape the police and other public officials as they engage in their official duties…
On Friday, the First Circuit agreed. In a decision that reads like an ode to the First Amendment as key to both liberty and democracy, the court wrote:
“The filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these principles [of protected First Amendment activity]. Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting the free discussion of governmental affairs.”
“Basic First Amendment principles, along with case law from this and other circuits, answer that question unambiguously in the affirmative.”
The Court further stated that such protections should have been clear to the police all along, noting that the right to videotape police carrying out their duties in a public forum is “fundamental and virtually self-evident”
“The public’s right of access to information is coextensive with that of the press.”
“Moreover, changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw,” the Court continued. “The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders with a ready cell phone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew, and news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.”
It’s possible that the case, or a case of a similar nature, will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court eventually, but we are hard pressed to find a legitimate argument to the contrary, and thus believe that the Supreme Court would uphold the decision of the lower First Circuit Court of Appeals.
Of course, public officials, namely those who are themselves breaking the law and violating the rights of others, will continue to attempt to intimidate the general public – but only for a bit longer. Take, for example, the case of Michael Allison, who faces life in prison on multiple counts of wiretapping in Illinois for recording law enforcement officers in public. The Illinois Attorney General continues, at least as of this writing, to pursue the case after Allison refused a plea bargain that would have left him with no jail time. Allison rebelliously responded to the plea offer by saying, “if we don’t fight for our freedoms here at home we’re all going to lose them.”
The First Circuit Court’s decision would override any decision by a State judge, as it falls under the umbrella of the US Constitution, so we have no doubt Allison’s charges will be dropped, or simply overruled by a Federal court if it comes to that.
Once it becomes broadly known that this decision has set a ground breaking precedent and that there can be no criminal liability, Americans all over the country will undoubtedly begin documenting law enforcement activity and making that documentation available on the internet for all to see.
An open society, and one that is legally protected from the threat of intimidation and unwarranted arrest for simply making a record of police activity, is a freer society and this recent decision from the First Circuit Court of Appeals helps to ensure that freedom.
This is true transparency in government, an example which should be carried on to the U.S. Congress, where it would be in the best interests of the people to have cameras and microphones in any and all meetings where legislation or negotiation is taking place.