EDITORIAL: A federal appeals court affirms the right of the public to film the police

In the wake of cases such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City, support for police body cameras — even among cops — is on the rise. For the great majority of conscientious and duty-bound law enforcement officers, body cameras can act as a safety net, protecting them from frivolous claims and allegations.

Yet some police officers become quite camera shy when it comes to members of the public using their smartphones to document their activity.

In a welcome ruling this week, however, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has concluded that efforts to prevent citizens from filming police with their smartphones run afoul of the Constitution. The ruling centered on a pair of incidents dating to September 2012.

During a protest against fracking at a convention center in Philadelphia, Amanda Geraci, who monitors and videotapes interactions between citizens and police at protests and demonstrations, sought to get a better vantage point after police arrested a protester. After she moved, Ms. Geraci says, police physically restrained her against a pillar and blocked her from filming the arrest.

During the same demonstration, a Temple student named Richard Fields was walking down the street when he noticed 20 police officers standing outside a house party. When Mr. Fields snapped a shot of the scene on his phone, an officer ordered him to leave. When Mr. Fields refused, he was handcuffed and arrested.

While the charge against Mr. Fields was eventually dropped, both he and Ms. Geraci sued, accusing police of retaliating against them for recording officers’ actions.

Taking up the case were attorneys for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization that had filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that citizens have an essential right to record public law enforcement activities.

A lower court had previously ruled the city was immune from such lawsuits. It also ruled that the First Amendment protects the right to film public police activities only if there is an “expressive” purpose for recording them.

The 3rd Circuit reversed that ruling, finding that members of the public aren’t subject to such limitations. While the court held that the officers involved were protected by qualified immunity and couldn’t be held personally liable, it also cited numerous other rulings affirming the First Amendment right to collect information about government activities.

The ruling acknowledges important constitutional principals involving free speech and expression. Police officers should have no legal grounds to stop a law-abiding citizen from simply recording their public activities, absent some indication that the filming endangers a legitimate law enforcement operation.

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