Apparently Public Privacy Laws Apply to Cops Too

Striking a blow for freedom and shit, the U.S. Federal Appeals court has ruled that as a citizen you do in fact  have the right to record police officers engaged in law enforcement action in public. You would think that officers and citizens alike would benefit from interactions between law enforcement and civilians: after all, if there’s a recording of an incident, it’s much harder for a suspect to claim police brutality if there’s a recording of peaceable law enforcement, and just as well, makes it more difficult for bad cops to abuse their power if there’s a record of their actions as a peace officer.

From the text of the ruling in the case of Glik vs. the City of Boston, this is the incident that went down in order to push this case to the Feds:

“As he was walking past the Boston Common on the evening of October 1, 2007, Simon Glik caught sight of three police officers — the individual defendants here — arresting a young man. Glik heard another bystander say something to the effect of, “You are hurting him, stop.” Concerned that the officers were employing excessive force to effect the arrest, Glik stopped roughly ten feet away and began recording video footage of the arrest on his cell phone.

         After placing the suspect in handcuffs, one of the officers turned to Glik and said, “I think you have taken enough pictures.” Glik replied, “I am recording this. I saw you punch him.” An officer footnoteicon Federal Court Rules Videotaping Police Is A First Amendment Right then approached Glik and asked if Glik’s cell phone recorded audio. When Glik affirmed that he was recording audio, the officer placed him in handcuffs, arresting him for, inter alia, unlawful audio recording in violation of Massachusetts’s wiretap statute. Glik was taken to the South Boston police station. In the course of booking, the police confiscated Glik’s cell phone and a computer flash drive and held them as evidence.
         Glik was eventually charged with violation of the wiretap statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 99(C)(1), disturbing the peace, id. ch. 272, § 53(b), and aiding in the escape of a prisoner, id. ch. 268, § 17. Acknowledging lack of probable cause for the last of these charges, the Commonwealth voluntarily dismissed the count of aiding in the escape of a prisoner. In February 2008, in response to Glik’s motion to dismiss, the Boston Municipal Court disposed of the remaining two charges for disturbance of the peace and violation of the wiretap statute. With regard to the former, the court noted that the fact that the “officers were unhappy they were being recorded during an arrest . . . does not make a lawful exercise of a First Amendment right a crime.” Likewise, the court found no probable cause supporting the wiretap charge, because the law requires a secret recording and the officers admitted that Glik had used his cell phone openly and in plain view to obtain the video and audio recording.
         Glik filed an internal affairs complaint with the Boston Police Department following his arrest, but to no avail. The Department did not investigate his complaint or initiate disciplinary action against the arresting officers. In February 2010, Glik filed a civil rights action against the officers and the City of Boston in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. The complaint included claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of Glik’s First and Fourth Amendment rights, as well as state-law claims under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12, § 11I, and for malicious prosecution.
         The defendants moved to dismiss Glik’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that the allegations of the complaint failed to adequately support Glik’s claims and that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity “because it is not well-settled that he had a constitutional right to record the officers.” At a hearing on the motion, the district court focused on the qualified immunity defense, noting that it presented the closest issue. After hearing argument from the parties, the court orally denied the defendants’ motion, concluding that “in the First Circuit . . . this First Amendment right publicly to record the activities of police officers on public business is established.”
The basis of the case against Glik was that he was “secretly” recording the police during a law enforcement action, but the supreme court has ruled in several other cases that collection and disemination of information from a public place falls under the protections of freedom of the press, as any person can act as a member of the press, especially given the technology of the modern age. Anyone can publish information, anyone can be a member of the “press.”
The ruling goes on to elaborate:
” The First Amendment issue here is, as the parties frame it, fairly narrow: is 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.

          It is firmly established that the First Amendment’s aegis extends further than the text’s proscription on laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information. As the Supreme Court has observed, “the First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.” First Nat’l Bank v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783 (1978); see also Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 564 (1969) (“It is . . . well established that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas.”). An important corollary to this interest in protecting the stock of public information is that “[t]here is an undoubted right to gather news ‘from any source by means within the law.’” Houchinsv. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1, 11 (1978) (quoting Branzburg v.Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 681-82 (1972)).
         The filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these principles. 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.” Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966). Moreover, as the Court has noted, “[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because ‘[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.’”
This ruling is kind of awesome, and as I stated earlier, protects citizens from abuse of power, as well as the police from false claims of abuse of power. I’m not sure yet how I feel about our society where everyone has a video camera via cell phone, so any moment of your public life may be recorded and disseminated, but in this case keeping the checks and balances on law enforcement is an undeniable benefit to the public good.
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~ by K. Ritcheson on December 7, 2011.

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