A federal appeals court decision last week has fascinating implications for citizens and journalists who record police at work – such as during an arrest or controlling a crowd during a protest.
The 1st Circuit U.S Court of Appeals ruled that a Boston man’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was arrested for using his cell phone’s digital video camera to record police arresting a man on the Boston Commons.
The police used a state law against recording a conversation without both people’s permission to charge the man, Simon Gilk.
Gilk pulled out his cell phone and began recording the arrest when he heard a bystander call, “Stop, you’re hurting him.” Gilk was concerned that the police may have been using excessive force.
This decision could clarify a situation that has been fraught with peril for journalists and citizen journalists – regular folks like Mr. Gilk who take it upon themselves to record possible police misconduct.
Now that anyone can carry a video camera with them – and most people do – this is not an unlikely scenario. Numerous people – both journalists and citizens – have been arrested over the last few years in similar situations.
I show my class a video of journalist Amy Goodman being arrested by police while covering an anti-war protest during the Republican 2008 presidential convention. The video was taken by a citizen journalist, by the way. Goodman was arrested when she tried to stop police from arresting her colleagues.
In most cases, especially involving local police and local news outlets, officers are professional and respectful in their treatment of journalists at the scene of an accident, arrest, protest or whatever. They understand the First Amendment rights of journalists.
But there certainly are exceptions, and many professional photographers can tell stories about times they were told to put their cameras away or face arrest.
And I can only imagine what police think when citizen journalists get our their cameras and start recording. It’s so easy for officers to arrest them and claim they were participating in the protest or getting in the way of police doing their job.
Only time will tell whether last week’s decision will have a lasting effect strengthening the First Amendment rights of citizens to record police at work. I hope it does.