Another federal appeals court has ruled that people have a First Amendment right to videotape police in public and that it is illegal for officers to interfere with those doing so. The ruling, by the 3rd U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Philadelphia, is a welcome development and police departments should make sure their officers understand it.
This is the sixth time a federal appeals court has upheld the public’s right to photograph and film officers in public. Even without the ruling, it would be virtually impossible, given the proliferation of smartphones, for officers to halt the videotaping of major incidents unfolding in crowded public settings. In those situations, there are too many people recording from too many angles for police to shut down all recording.
The ruling is more likely to afford protection to the lone bystander who pulls out a phone and starts filming. At the center of the 3rd Circuit ruling, for example, were the cases of a college student cited for filming police as they broke up a party outside of a Philadelphia house and an activist who recorded officers arresting a fracking demonstrator.
Police want their version of what transpires to be law, and they sometimes discourage filming so they can control the narrative. As the 3rd Circuit ruled, however, smartphone video cuts both ways. It has sometimes discredited officers’ conduct and other times helped to clear them of wrongdoing.
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The ruling isn’t foolproof; people cannot interfere with officers as they do their jobs, for example, or trespass on a crime scene. Also, officers still could file bogus charges against someone whose only offense was filming. But the greater understanding there is of this First Amendment right, the more police will accept it.