Americans have the right to film police in public, court rules
US citizens have the right to film police performing their duties, a three-judge panel of judges from the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled, overturning a Philadelphia court decision against two people who filmed on-duty police.
Writing the opening opinion for Friday’s ruling was Judge Thomas Ambro, who cited the famous Rodney King case from 1991, when Los Angeles police were filmed beating King. Judge Ambro said that “filming police on the job was rare then, but common now.”
“These recordings have both exposed police misconduct and exonerated officers from errant charges,” he said. Ambro added that “this increase in the observation, recording and sharing of police activity has contributed greatly to our national discussion of proper policing.”
This latest judgement overturns the year-old controversial ruling from the lower US district court level in Philadelphia. Last year, Judge Mark Kearney found no free speech violations in two instances of citizens recording police officers. The incidents in question relate to Amanda Geraci who was pushed to the ground by an officer in 2012 after attempting to take photos during an anti-fracking protest, and Richard Fields, who was arrested in 2013 after filming police as they broke up a college party.
Kearney's ruling had declared that since neither Garaci nor Fields offered a reason for filming, they did not have the First Amendment right to do so, according to court documents from 2016.
The Philadelphia Police Department, however, already had a memorandum for officers that instructed them to not interfere if a citizen is filming them on the job.
A year after the memo was released in 2011, the Internal Affairs division received eight complaints from citizens that said police retaliated against them for recording the officers and their conduct while they were on duty.
“I really think it’s an acknowledge that civilians, and not just the formal press, have a tremendously important role to play in how police use their power,” said Molly Hooper-Tack from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, one of the civil rights lawyers who successfully appealed the lower court’s decision.
In the reversal ruling, Judge Ambro wrote that access to filming police “is particularly important because it leads to citizen discourse.” He further stated that “recording police activity in public falls squarely within the First Amendment right of access to information.”
“As no doubt the press has the right, so does the public,” he continued.
The opinion also states that every federal appeals court that has addressed the issue has held that there is a First Amendment right to record police in public.
However, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in a 2-1 vote, said due to “qualified immunity,” police officers could not be held liable for actions taken against Garaci and Fields because the right to record had not been “clearly established” at the time.