Posts Tagged ‘ACLU’

Court Declares Unconstitutional Illinois Law Against Taping of Police

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

The Chicago Federal Center, home to the Seventh Circuit (Photo: EEJ)

From a press release from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press:

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stood up for the public’s right to be informed about the actions of public officials Tuesday when it declared unconstitutional provisions in the Illinois wiretapping law that prohibits audio recording of police activity in public places.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press had argued in a friend-of-the-court brief to the Chicago-based court that the overbroad law was a danger to journalists’ and the public’s First Amendment rights.

“This decision is a First Amendment slam-dunk. The court could not have been clearer about the importance of protecting the public’s right to observe and record the actions of public officials in public places,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “Although Chicago police had indicated they would not enforce the law during the NATO Summit later this month – which we all expect will be accompanied by protests and police activity – it’s nice to have the force of the court’s decision on the right to record those events.”

“The notion that audio recording police activity in a public place, where there is no expectation of privacy, constitutes a felony is absurd and advances absolutely no government interest,” Dalglish added. “We are delighted that the appeals court agreed.”

One little nit: I don’t understand where they get “Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals” from. The full name is the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. So you can shorten it to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, if you like, but it makes no sense to put the “U.S.” between “Seventh” and “Circuit.” It’s kind of like putting something between “United” and “States.” Okay, I guess it’s not that bad. But it’s wrong.

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ACLU Sues School After Girls Suspended for “Homicidal” FB Posts Blasting “Ugly” People

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Griffith Public Schools logoGriffith Public Schools expelled three 8th grade girls for Facebook posts evincing a desire to kill ugly students at school. The ACLU has filed suit against the district.

According to the complaint and the Northwest Indian Times, the Facebook discussion began one eighth girl updated her Facebook status to reflect that she had cut herself while shaving her legs. The status update was after school and was visible to those in the students’ “friends” circle:

[Girl 1 status update:] … I hate when I’m shaving my legs and I get he tinyest, microscopic, little [expletive] cut and it bleeds so much and makes me lose like 1/3 of the blood in my body – _ -

The following are excerpts of the conversation that followed:

[Girl 2:] thee only people that make me mad, are 7th graders who dont move out of thee way. & ugly people liike[name][name][name][name] [name]…etc.

[Girl 1:] I would say kill all the ugly people at school than. But I don’t wanna die.

[Girl 3:] i wanna kill people.

[Girl 2:] ii wiish yu wouldnt get caught, cos shiit, half thee school would be gone by now…

[Girl 1:] I need new best friends. All of mine are homicidal.

In case you’re wondering, the district got the Facebook exchange from a classmate’s mother.

Missing from the mainstream-media write-ups of this is what it says about the ACLU itself to be involved in this case. It sure looks like the ACLU has put itself firmly on the side of the popular, beautiful people. I kind of always thought to ACLU attorneys as recovering junior-high nerds. You know, the kind of kids who were on yearbook and took it really seriously. Maybe that’s just what I wanted to believe …

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ACLU Sues to Stop Sheriff Harassment of Photographers

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Mosaic of photographs of random thingsSome of the thousands of photographs I’ve taken which, I am sure, the LASD would consider to be without aesthetic value. (More where those came from on Flickr.)

I’m always taking photos of random things. I think it’s fun. And photos are valuable for illustrating blog posts, among other things.

But a lot of law enforcement agencies consider photography to be a “suspicious activity.” You can be seriously harassed for street photography.

Happily, the ACLU is stepping in to do something about it. The ACLU is now suing to challenge a policy of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that considers as “terrorism-related” the activity of taking “pictures or video footage with no apparent esthetic value, i.e., camera angles, security equipment, security personnel, traffic lights, building entrances, etc.”

If I had a buck for every photo I’ve taken of “security equipment, security personnel, traffic lights, building entrances, etc.,” then I would have a huge wad of cash. Enough to buy a full-frame digital SLR and maybe even get a sweet L-series 400mm telephoto lens.

And I’d run out and use it to take pictures of traffic lights, building entrances, and other stuff like that. And then I’d probably have to call the ACLU for help, because I could get into trouble like their latest plaintiffs Shane Quentin and Shawn Nee.

Quentin was targeted when he was taking photographs of refineries at night in south Los Angeles at night. (I’ve been meaning to do this myself the next time have some extra time down there. The refineries at night are stunning – fortresses of light, flame, fog, and exhaust. Highly photogenic in my book.) Well for his efforts, Quentin was frisked and placed in the back of squad car. He was kept there for about 45 minutes before he was let go.

It could have been me.

Nee’s misadventures are even harder to fathom. LASD deputies detained and searched plaintiff Shawn Nee when he was taking pictures turnstiles at an L.A. Metro station. This gives you an idea of where they were at: They asked Nee if he was planning to sell the photos to al-Qaeda.

Really. I’m not making that up. I mean, not only are they imply that he was in league with al-Qaeda, but that he was doing it for the money.

Then the LASD officers threatened to stick Nee on an FBI “hit list.” Okay, that’s absurd. Everyone who watches USA network knows that the CIA is in charge of assassinating terrorists on U.S. soil. But I digress.

On a separate occasion, sheriff’s deputies ordered Nee to refrain from taking photos along the Hollywood Walk of Fame at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, outside the W Hotel. I mean, holy heck. If you aren’t safe taking pictures there – smack-dab in the middle of freaking Hollywood – where are you?

You can tell I’m upset. I’m using far too much italics.

The ACLU’s complaint [pdf], unlike this blog post, is a model of legal writing. For one, it’s written with a literary flair, yet it refrains from crossing the line into floweriness. Like this:

Photography is not a crime; it is a means of artistic expression. In public spaces, on public streets and from public sidewalks, no law bars Los Angeles residents and visitors from photographing the world around them, from documenting their own lives or using their lenses to find the sublime in the commonplace.

Nicely said. The complaint also is filled with footnoted references to essays, art reviews, and books. It’s very well-researched. A model pleading. Kudos to the ACLU. What’s more, this is a lawsuit that is badly needed to push back against an unhealthy trend. As the complaint says:

Over the past several years, law enforcement agencies across the country have implemented “suspicious activity reporting” programs, under which officers are trained to report certain categories of behavior believed to be potential indicators of terrorism. Many departments include photography as one such ‘suspicious activity’ that should be reported.

Mickey H. Osterreicher said in a letter to L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca that the aim is to get “at least” the L.A. Sheriff’s Department to revise departmental policy and instruct deputies correspondingly.

“Safety and security concerns should not be used as a pretext to chill free speech and expression or to impede the ability to gather news,” Osterreicher said.

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Judge Posner Worried By Mic-Wielding Bloggers

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Hon. Richard A. Posner (Photo: U. Chicago)

Illinois has an eavesdropping and wiretapping statute that prohibits making an audio recording of any conversation without the consent of all persons involved. This applies not only over the phone or in a private place, but even in a public place. And even when the conversation is with public officials concerning a matter of public concern. Violations can be prosecuted as felonies, and civil suits are authorized as well.

If you don’t think that sounds constitutional, I’m inclined to agree. And so is the ACLU, who is suing on behalf of several people arrested for secretly recording on-duty police officers. The civil liberties group is challenging the law in ACLU v. Alvarez.

On appeal to the federal Seventh Circuit, the ACLU faced questioning by a panel that included America’s most famous federal circuit judge, the Hon. Richard A. Posner. His questioning was alarming. Just 14 words into his argument, ACLU lawyer Richard O’Brien was interrupted with this:

“Yeah, I know … But I’m not interested, really, in what you want to do with these recordings of peoples’ encounters with the police.”

Huh? Really? Ferreting out public corruption, abuse of power, obstruction of justice by those charged to guard it – all that sounds interesting to me.

Posner proceeded to worry about how striking down the law could aid snooping bloggers:

“Once all this stuff can be recorded, there’s going to be a lot more of this snooping around by reporters and bloggers.”

“Is that a bad thing, your honor?”

“Yes, it is a bad thing. There is such a thing as privacy.”

Such a thing as privacy for on-duty police officers? Even when they are in public or interacting with civilians? Gosh, I can’t get behind that.

Justin Silverman at CMLP has an extremely thoughtful post on the matter. He writes, “Posner’s apparent belief that there should be an expectation of privacy for those in public areas discussing matters of public concern is alarming given that it is squarely at odds with the First Amendment. Worse, Posner’s comments smack of condescension for journalists.”

Jonathan Turley also is taken aback. He writes on his blog, “What astonishes me is that government officials are pushing this effort to block this basic right of citizens and perhaps the single most important form of evidence against police abuse. … As someone who admires Posner’s contributions to the law, it is disappointing to read such biased and dismissive comments in a free speech case. For police wondering ‘who will rid us of these meddling citizens?,’ they appear to have one jurist in Illinois not just ready but eager to step forward.”

Unfortunately, the facts of the case show that Turley’s comment is not the hyperbole you wish it were. The story told by one of the plaintiffs in the suit, Tiawanda Moore, is terrifying: She was groped in her home by a Chicago police officer who had responded to a domestic disturbance call. Moore was brave enough to take the issue to internal affairs. But they tried to deflect her complaint and sought to dissuade her from pursuing the matter. In the interests of protecting herself, she began to secretly record her conversations with investigators on her Blackberry.

When the recordings came to light, Moore was arrested and charged with violation of Illinois’s eavesdropping statute. Sadly, prosecutors took the case to trial. But in a strong affirmation of the role of civilian jurors, the jury acquitted her of the charge.

Just a few weeks ago, the First Circuit ruled that there is a constitutional right to record police actions in public places. Hopefully the Seventh Circuit will follow the lead and clear the way for snooping bloggers and sexually harassed citizens alike to be free to record the police in the City of Big Shoulders.

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ALCU to Sue Baltimore Police Over On-the-Spot Video Seizure and Deletion

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Badge of the Baltimore Police Department and still from YouTube video of police incident at 2010 Preakness Stakes

The Baltimore Sun reports that the American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue Baltimore police for illegally seizing a man’s camera and deleting videos from it at the 2010 Preakness Stakes. This could be an important case for citizen journalists and bloggers.

The man, Christopher Sharp, was taking video with his cell phone of what appears to be the use of excessive force in the arrest of a woman, a friend of Sharp’s, at the prestigious thoroughbred horse race. According to the ACLU press release:

[A]fter Sharp recorded the police beating, he was detained and harangued by police officers, who demanded that he surrender his cellphone as “evidence”. Sharp politely declined, but police continued to demand that he give up his phone. Fearing arrest, he finally handed over the phone to an officer who assured him he would simply download the videos for evidentiary purposes, then return the phone to Sharp. Instead, police destroyed the beating videos and all other videos it contained – about two dozen in all – before returning the phone to Sharp.

Another video of the same event shows the bleeding woman pinned down on the floor of the Pimlico Race Course clubhouse as a crowd watches in a wide circle. One police officer can be heard asking “Why’re they taking pictures?” and saying “Get him,” directing a fellow police officers to the location of a camera-operating onlooker.

Also in that video, you can hear another police officer making false assertions about the law, saying that it is “illegal to record anybody’s voice or anything else in the state of Maryland.” In order for Maryland’s wiretapping law to apply, there would have to be a reasonable expectation of privacy. It would be beyond absurd to argue that the police had a reasonable expectation of privacy while arresting a woman in the middle of huge crowd at one of the biggest sporting events of the year. Even if there had been no crowd, the law should, in my opinion, construe an implied lack of expectation of privacy in all encounters between police, in the course of their duites, and members of the public.

Putting aside the legal, constitutional, and political questions, there is the simple sad fact that Sharp lost a lot of video footage that was tremendously valuable to him.

“I’m heartbroken over the videos I lost of my son and I doing things together,” said Sharp in the press release. “The videos were keepsakes of memories like his soccer and basketball games, times at the beach and the Howard County fair. It kills me that the police acted as if it was okay for them to could just wipe out some of my fondest memories. I used to trust police, but now I don’t anymore, because of how wrongly the police acted here, and because it seemed like this was just routine procedure for them.”