Big Federal Appeals Court Victory for Filming Police in Public

Seal of the First Circuit Court of AppealsThe Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center reports that the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals has “issued a resounding and unanimous opinion” in support of the constitutional right to record police actions in public places. As I noted in March, this case has big implications for bloggers.

With his cellphone, attorney Simon Glik videoed Boston Police officers arresting a homeless man in Boston Common, a public park downtown. The charge? Criminal violation of Massachusetts Wiretap Statute (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 99), which was total nonsense in this situation. The law prohibits “secretly” recording wire or oral communications. The police sought to contort it beyond recognition as a pretext for arresting someone documenting possible police abuse. Cooler heads prevailed when the charges were quickly dismissed. But happily, Glik worked to vindicate the rights of citizen reporters everywhere by filing a federal lawsuit after the fact. And now, he’s won big, establishing that he had both a First Amendment right and a Fourth Amendment right to record.

The opinion is available as a pdf. If you don’t have time to plow through it all, Jeffrey P. Hermes on CMLP’s blog offers these delightful pullquotes:

  • “Glik was exercising clearly-established First Amendment rights in filiming the officers in a public space, and … his clearly-established Fourth Amendment rights were violated by his arrest without probable cause.”
  • “[I]s there a constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public? Basic First Amendment principles, along with case law from this and other circuits, answer that question unambiguously in the affirmative.”
  • “Glik filmed the defendant police officers in the Boston Common, the oldest city park in the United States and the apotheosis of a public forum. In such traditional public spaces, the rights of the state to limit the exercise of First Amendment activity are ‘sharply circumscribed.’”
  • “[A] citizen’s right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.”
  • “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.’”

Good stuff. Maybe I’ll be assigning this later in the semester in my Media & Entertainment Law class.

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