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Filming police

Federal Court Rules You Have the Right to Record Police, Even Covertly

A Federal court in Massachusetts ruled police must stop arresting civilians who film them covertly.

Here’s the background… Two civilians were arrested for filming police covertly on many occasions. When they saw law enforcement officers performing their duties, they took out their phones to capture the scene on camera, ready to film any misconduct that might occur.

Cops didn’t like that and charged them with violating a Massachusetts wire-tap law, punishment of which can be up to 5 years in prison.

Last week a federal court ruled that the wiretap law violates the First Amendment’s freedom of expression, which is seen as an important step forward in the right-to-record movement.

The First Amendment bars the government “from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.”

Although the Supreme Court has never specifically discussed the right to record, the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, and 11th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have all held that the First Amendment plainly protects the filming of officers and public. And for good reason: A long line of Supreme Court precedents confirms that the government may not “repress speech by silencing certain voices at any of the various points in the speech process.” As the 7th Circuit explained, the “act of making” a recording is “a corollary of the right to disseminate the resulting recording.” The “right to publish or broadcast” the recording “would be insecure, or largely ineffective” if the recording itself were banned. Nobody seriously argues that the government could forbid us from taking notes in public to detail police officers’ behavior. Why should it be permitted to ban audiovisual recordings—whether covert or conspicuous?

The federal judge ruled that it can’t.  In her decision last week, Judge Saris ruled that the First Amendment wins, and citizens have the right to film police, even covertly.