The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia just recently ruled that individuals have a First Amendment right to video record on-duty police officers.
Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), two private citizens appealed a federal judge’s ruling that the constitutional right to record police activity was not absolute and that the “videographer” must indicate to the officers that the acts were being recorded as “an act of protect or challenge to the police”.
The police intervened and prevented two citizens, Amanda Geraci and Richard Fields, from filming on-duty Philadelphia police officers interacting and/or arresting private citizens in public.
In 2012 , Amanda Geraci, an activist for police accountability, attended and recorded a protest against “fracking” at the Convention Center. Geraci’s recordings included interactions between protesters and officers. While recording the arrest of a fellow protester Geraci was pushed against the building to render her incapable of recording the officers. Although no charges were filed against Geraci, she alleged that the officers had infringed upon her First Amendment rights.
Shortly thereafter, in 2013, a Temple University student named Richard Fields began photographing officers attempting to shut down and disperse students attending a party near Temple’s campus. When Fields failed to abide by an officer’s order to stop photographing the incident and leave the scene, he was placed in handcuffs and detained in a van for about half an hour. During this time officers searched Fields’ person and cellular phone. Fields was charged with the summary offense of photographing officers, however, the charges were dropped after officers neglected to attend the related court hearing.
The lower court’s ruling against the citizens and ACLU, permitted police to stop a citizen from recording if the videographer failed to alert the police that the recording was taking place.
In overturning the lower court’s decision, the Third Circuit determined that the First Amendment protects the creation of material. Writing for the Court, Judge Thomas L. Ambro stated that the lower court’s emphasis on notice of intent or the purpose of the recordings was misplaced because generally the significance or potential need/use of the footage is unknown at the time it is recorded. Instead, the value of a recording is frequently evaluated following an incident or event and upon review of the captured material. Consequently, the Third Circuit remanded (sent the case back down) to determine if the city of Philadelphia will be liable and required to pay damages for the conduct of its officers.
The ALCU and various civil rights groups are pleased with an outcome that they assert will allow citizens and officers to further protect themselves and to hold government officials accountable for their actions. As a result of this major decision, citizens now have the explicitly protected right to record on-duty officers in public without fear of arrest or detainment.