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2 minutes reading time (455 words)

1st Amendment Ruling Upholds Right of Citizens to Record Police Behavior

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the ruling of a Massachusetts district court that denied immunity from suit to police officers for arresting a man who video recorded their arrest of a person on the Boston Common.  Given the public nature of their job and the public setting of the arrest that was being filmed, the federal appellate court spurned their claim that they should be immune from suit for arresting and jailing the videographer for a felony.

The Court stated:

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." Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966). Moreover, as the Court has noted, "[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because '[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.'" First Nat'l Bank, 435 U.S. at 777 n.11 (alteration in original) (quoting Thomas Emerson, Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment 9 (1966)). This is particularly true of law enforcement officials, who are granted substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties....

[....]

In our society, police officers are expected to endure significant burdens caused by citizens' exercise of their First Amendment rights. See City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461 (1987) ("[T]he First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers."). Indeed, "[t]he freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state." Id. at 462-63. The same restraint demanded of law enforcement officers in the face of "provocative and challenging" speech, id. at 461 (quoting Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949)), must be expected when they are merely the subject of videotaping that memorializes, without impairing, their work in public spaces.

This ruling is important because law enforcement in many areas of the country, including Florida, have made similar arrests claiming they are not subject to being recorded in a public place.  This of course, clashes with the freedom to record assumed by the government, and upheld by the courts,  in the placement of public cameras on every street corner in many localities.   This Court cites a long history of cases and precedent to argue that what is done in public, AND IN THE NAME AND AUTHORITY OF THE PUBLIC, is not subject to secrecy.  It is a welcome ruling and one I hope is heeded in similar actions around the United States, including the State of Florida.

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