FAN 58 (First Amendment News) Citizen Recordings of Police in Public Places — First Amendment Protection?
We’ve had incidents where people have videotaped us and it requires unbelievable restraint. Typically during times where things can be a little chaotic. We really have to convey we’re living in a different environment now where police action is scrutinized and a lot of video is surfacing. We simply tell our officers to assume they’re being recorded out in public at all times. — South Gate Police Capt. Darren Arakawa (L.A. Times, April 21, 2015)
We live in technological times, in times when the means of communications are restructuring the relationship between citizen and State. Part of that new technology is the cell phone and its ability to capture reality with video accuracy and then transmit its recorded images to the world within seconds. In the process, citizens have become journalists of sorts as they convey the news of the moment to their fellow citizens and others. From Ferguson to Baltimore, eyes are opening as never before as the conduct of police is cast in bold relief. What was once routinely concealed is now routinely revealed. Predictably, there have been attempts to squelch (by force and by law) these new checks on police power — transparency breeds contempt. By the same token, the new technology can also turn its lens on acts of lawlessness, as the events in Baltimore are revealing. And as you will see below in the item concerning a recent incident at the Albany Airport, sometimes there are videos of police actually defending people’s claims of their First Amendment rights.
It is a fact: Visual communication is revolutionizing our world, both in cultural and in constitutional ways. The public forum is becoming public in ways heretofore unimagined. Every street corner, every ally, and every open space is now not only a place wherein to be, but also a place wherein to be watched. True, it may sometimes smack of an Orwellian world, but it is likewise a world in which the acts of Big Brother can be scrutinized like never before. Hence, just as technology can enhance governmental power, so too can it restrain it.
How does the First Amendment figure into all of this? That is the question. Before turning to it, however, it is well to consider what happened recently to a citizen in Southern California as she attempted to record the events in her own neighborhood.
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A little over a week ago something disturbing happened in South Gate, California — and true to the times, it was captured on cell-phone video. It happened in a neighborhood where a “tactical unit” of police from different departments sough to arrest some members of an alleged bike gang, purportedly on outstanding warrants. As all of this was taking place in open daylight — replete with heavily armed police and what have you — Beatriz Paez was recording portions of it on her cell phone. The woman appeared to be a few houses or more away from where all of this was occurring and did not otherwise seem to be interfering with the police in any way.
Meanwhile, an officer directed an armed U.S. Marshall towards the woman with the cell phone. The marshall approached Ms. Paez, who continued to record the events. Suddenly, he lunged towards her, grabbed her cell phone, and then threw it to the ground and kicked it.
You’re making me feel unsafe. I have a right to be here. — Beatriz Paez
Fate being what it is, the scene was captured on video, apparently by another citizen with a cell phone camera.
What to make of this? “The officer’s conduct is a blatant and deliberate violation of the Constitution and his duties as an officer to abide by the law,” is what Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, told a Los Angeles Times reporter.
A “blatant . . . violation of the Constitution”? While I agree that blanket prohibitions and the like on citizen recordings of police actions in public violate the free speech provisions of the federal and many state constitutions, among other laws, I nonetheless thought I would look into the matter. Here is what I found:
Summary of Federal Case Law
- 5 federal cases out of four different circuits have sustained a First Amendment claim to record police activities occurring in public
- 3 federal cases out of two different circuits have denied a First Amendment claim to record police activities occurring in public, though two of those cases involved unpublished opinions.
- 8 federal district courts out of four different federal circuits have denied a First Amendment claim to record police activities occurring in public.
- (see cases listed below)
When police officers seize materials in order to suppress the distribution of information critical of their actions, “the seizure clearly contravene[s] the most elemental tenets of First Amendment law.” Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 521 (4th Cir. 2003) (source: here)
Limitations on Citizens’ Videoing Police: Legitimate & Otherwise
In all of this certain limitations might come into play, limitations that could confine the reach of an right, constitutional, statutory, or otherwise. Such limitations would include the following:
- Time, place and manner restrictions (see e.g., Kelly v. Borough of Carlisle, 622 F.3d 248, 262 (3d Cir. 2010), but “peaceful recording of an arrest in a public space that does not interfere with the police officers’ performance of their duties” is conduct “not reasonably subject to limitation.” Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 84 (1st Cir. 2011);
- Any behavior that might reasonably be viewed as interfering with the lawful activity of police officials;
- And then there are certain consent laws requiring individuals to obtain consent before recording anyone, even police engaged in public activities (such laws as applied to police officials raise First Amendment issues as evidenced by the 7th Circuit Alvarez ruling listed below). Moreover, state wiretap statutes are often used when citizens secretly record;
- Application of the fighting words doctrine (but see: Lewis v. City of New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130, 135 (1974) (Powell, J. concurring): “a properly trained officer may reasonably be expected to ‘exercise a higher degree of restraint’ than the average citizen, and thus be less likely to respond belligerently to ‘fighting words.'”), and R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 428 (1992) (Stevens, J., concurring) (“we have consistently construed the ‘fighting words’ exception … narrowly”).
- Disorderly conduct (but see: Gregory v. City of Chicago, 394 U.S. 111, 120 (1969) (“To let a policeman’s command become equivalent to a criminal statute comes dangerously near making our government one of men rather than of laws.”);
- Securing the area rationale;
- Suspicious behavior rationale (but see: A person “whom police may think is suspicious but do not have probable cause to believe has committed a crime, is entitled to continue to walk the public streets,” and may not be arrested “‘at the whim of any police officer.’” Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 358 (1983) (quoting Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, 382 U.S. 87, 90 (1965)).
Recording Case Now Being Litigated in Maryland
→ Note: Many of the above issues are currently being litigated in Garcia v. Montgomery County (Case 8:12-cv-03592-TDC, U.S. Dist. Ct., MD), and Statement of Interest of Department of Justice supporting First Amendment claims. See here re the complaint filed by Robert Corn-Revere.
→ See also May 14, 2012 Statement by Department of Justice re Sharp v. Baltimore City Police Department, et. al. (“[Police] policies should affirmatively set forth the contours of individuals’ First Amendment right to observe and record police officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties. Recording governmental officers engaged in public duties is a form of speech through which private individuals may gather and disseminate information of public concern, including the conduct of law enforcement officers.”).
State law ought to make clear that it is illegal for an officer to confiscate a camera or phone — and certainly to destroy it — or to arrest people simply for recording police action in public places. — Editorial, L.A. Times, April 23, 2015
Statutory Law. It would, of course, be short-sighted to limit one’s focus to constitutional limitations. That is, the legality of police conduct in this area could also depend on:
- The precise scope of statutory authorization of police conduct in this area, and
- The character and extent of statutory limitations on police conduct in this area
→ See here re proposed California legislation creating a public right to record.
Officer Protects Assertion of 1-A Rights
“Obviously this is your constituional right.” — Deputy Sheriff Stan Lenic
When an airport authority at Albany International Airport tried repeatedly to prevent a young woman from InfoWars from distributing flyers informing passengers of their right to opt out of body scanning screening, a local sheriff’s officer came to their defense. It is all captured on video by documentary filmmaker Jason Bermas — it’s a must see!
→ Compare International Society for Krishna Consciousness v. Lee (1992) (no 1-A right to solicit for money in public airports)
Police Policies & Training Programs
- Boston Police Department training video re what citizens are allowed to record under Massachusetts’ wiretap statute.
- Luke Broadwater, “New city police policy says public has right to film officers,” Baltimore Sun, March 12, 2014 (Baltimore Police Policy here)
- Montgomery County, MD, Police Policy, “Citizen Videotaping Interactions“
I am calling on incoming Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch to order a Justice Department investigation of the incident and to make sure that all law enforcement officers are trained to respect the right of citizens to videotape them. — Congresswoman Janice Hahn (April 26, 2015)
Lawsuits Against Municipalities: Damages and/or Attorneys’ Fees
- Danielle Keeton-Olsen, “Recent settlement in suit over arrest for recording police follows growing trend,” Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, June 16, 2014: “The town of Weare, New Hampshire, settled a lawsuit last week for $57,500 with a woman arrested for videotaping a police officer, adding to the growing list of settlements stemming from police officers’ restriction of video and audio recordings in public places. In Gericke v. Begin, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.) upheld a lower court opinion that Carla Gericke was within her First Amendment rights to record a police officer at a traffic stop.Following that opinion, instead of choosing to continue with the trial, Weare settled the case with Gericke.”
- “Other courts have reached similar conclusions. In a U.S. district court case in Maryland, Sharp v. Baltimore City Police Department, police arrested a man taking video, deleted his recordings, and subpoenaed his medical and cell phone records.The court affirmed the plaintiff had a right to make the recording. The court quashed the subpoena and awarded him $25,000 in damages in addition to covering his approximately $220,000 in legal fees.”
- “Most recently, in ACLU v. Alvarez, the Seventh Circuit addressed the constitutionality of Illinois’ eavesdropping offense law after the ACLU of Illinois filed a pre-enforcement action against Illinois’ attorney general so its videographers would not be arrested for audio recording police officers in public places.Following that decision, the district court awarded $645,000 to the ACLU, covering attorney fees.”
- See Datz v. Suffolk County Police (story here: “On June 8, 2014, the NYCLU announced a settlement approved by Suffolk County Legislature. The settlement required the County Police Department (SCPD) to pay Datz $200,000 and create a Police-Media Relations Committee to address problems between the press and the police department.”) (see settlement here)
Appellate Cases Sustaining a First Amendment Claim Read More