Herald-Whig View

Court reaffirms right to video-record police in public

Posted: Jul. 14, 2017 10:40 am

ANOTHER federal appeals court has ruled that people have a First Amendment right to record video of police in public and that it is illegal for officers to interfere with those doing so.

The ruling, by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, is a welcome development, and police departments should make sure their officers understand it.

This is the sixth time a federal appeals court has upheld the public's right to photograph and record video of officers in public. Even without the ruling, it would be virtually impossible, given the proliferation of smartphones, for officers to halt video recordings of major incidents unfolding in crowded public settings. In those situations, there are too many people recording from too many angles for police to shut down all recording.

The ruling is more likely to afford protection to the lone bystander who pulls out a phone and starts filming. At the center of the 3rd Circuit ruling, for example, were the cases of a college student cited for filming police as they broke up a party outside a Philadelphia house and an activist who recorded officers arresting a fracking demonstrator.

Police sometimes discourage filming so they can control the narrative. As the 3rd Circuit ruled, however, smartphone video cuts both ways. It has sometimes discredited officers' conduct and other times helped to clear them of wrongdoing.

The ruling isn't foolproof. People cannot interfere with officers as they do their jobs, for example, or trespass on a crime scene. And there may be officers who still file bogus charges against someone whose only offense is recording video.

What's important is that judges in the 3rd Circuit have reaffirmed that the First Amendment rights of peaceful assembly and free speech cannot be denied simply because someone uses a video device.

Police departments and individual officers who take an oath to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law should not seek to diminish the rights of the people they serve.