ACLU Pulls Out a Key 1st Amendment Win Allowing People to Record Police Activities
Kudos to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts for their recent First Amendment victory at the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit - who ruled unanimously that Simon Glik had a right to videotape police in action on the Boston Common in October 2007. According to an ACLU press release, Glik sued the three police officers involved and the City of Boston for violating his civil rights after police arrested him and charged him with illegal wiretapping, aiding the escape of a prisoner, and disturbing the peace. When in fact he was simply "holding up his cell phone and openly recording Boston police officers who were punching another man."
"This is a resounding victory for the First Amendment right to openly record police officers carrying out their duties in a public place," said Sarah Wunsch, ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney. "It will be influential around the country in other cases where people have been arrested for videotaping the conduct of the police," said Wunsch.
"Police officers must be trained to respect the right of people to openly record their actions in public," said David Milton, a Boston attorney representing Mr. Glik for the ACLU in the civil rights suit. "Simon did what we hope any engaged citizen would do, which was documenting what he thought looked like an improper use of force, and his action in no way interfered with the police."
"This case is significant not only for members of the public who use cell phone cameras to document police conduct. It is equally important for members of the media, since reporters and the public have the same right of access to information," said attorney Milton. The court noted that changes in technology have made it hard to draw a line between a private citizen and a journalist. This ruling applies to recording of all public officials. The Court noted the particular importance of recording police officers because they have "substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties."
We could not agree more with this ruling. While no one at Open Media Boston has yet been hassled by the Boston Police Department in the course of our journalistic duties, I have personally had a Suffolk County Sheriff's Department employee threaten to break my camera if I took his picture during a demonstration by immigrant activists against Immigrations and Customs Enforcement's detention block at the Suffolk County South Bay House of Correction. If he had done so, I would have little immediate recourse but to file a suit of the type that Glik did. Now there's a clear ruling that will help stop such behavior by police in its tracks.
Knowing for certain that members of the press and the general public have the right to record police in action in public spaces will go along way towards encouraging appropriate behavior by police at all times. And that's a great thing. Some police may not like the decision, but that's what it means to live in a democracy. Flawed though it clearly is. Which is why its all the more important that the public and the press support organizations like the ACLU in their good works. Because if their lawyers weren't in the courts day in and day out, year after year, defending our First Amendment rights, who would be?
For more details, including video of the arrest witnessed by Simon Glik, see http://aclum.org/glik/.