Police interference with photography and recording has become more of a problem in recent years. Stories seem to be constantly circulating about police destroying video, audio, or pictures of themselves recorded in public.
In a recent example, U.S. Representative Steve Chabot from Ohio ordered police to confiscate the cameras of those attending a town hall meeting, allegedly to prevent an embarrassing YouTube video from making the rounds.
In some states, things have gone even further. Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts have all used wiretapping laws to prosecute citizens for recording police behavior in public.
One such citizen, Anthony Graber, happened to have a camera on his motorcycle helmet and recorded an extreme abuse of power when a plainclothes police officer stopped him for reckless driving.
The officer waved his gun and screamed at Graber before issuing him a citation. After Graber posted the video on YouTube, he was arrested and charged with a felony under wiretapping laws.
Although Graber was eventually acquitted, many others are not so lucky.
Recently, some citizens have fought back. In 2010, Christopher Sharp recorded with a mobile phone a friend being arrested. Police officers at the scene confiscated his phone and deleted its contents.
Sharp filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department, which in turn, released a statement telling its officers that it is perfectly legal for citizens to record them in public.
Apparently, the Department of Justice thought Baltimore was doing a poor job of enforcing this, so they sent the Baltimore Police Department a scathing 11-page letter. The United States Department of Justice clarified their stance on recording police in public, stating that it was absolutely necessary.
The letter cited the videotaping of the 1991 assault of Rodney King, when King was violently beaten by police officers, as a perfect example of why public oversight is necessary.
The Department of Justice also attacked the Baltimore Police Department for failing to adequately ensure that no officers would try to violate First Amendment rights.
After too many years of silence on the issue, it’s heartening to see the Department of Justice come to the defense of private citizens everywhere. While their letter did acknowledge they have no jurisdiction over individual cases, it also stated the suppression of speech is a national problem that has to be addressed at the federal level.
When police are confiscating recordings of themselves, freedom of the press is lost. The next person who has their rights violated this way could be one of my friends or co-workers, or even myself.
When you work in any kind of journalistic capacity, you begin to really appreciate the First Amendment. It’s one of the things that makes this country what it is; it is the bedrock of our legal system. Seeing the rights it grants being suppressed or even denied should get anyone’s blood boiling.
Our government needs accountability. Without that, we’re no better than the government our country rebelled against 235 years ago. For more information about First Amendment violations, feel free to visit Carlos Miller’s blog, “Photography is Not a Crime,” at carlosmiller.com. Miller has been recording instances of First Amendment violations ever since he was arrested in 2007 for photographing a Miami police officer.
In the state of Washington, as long as a person is in public and has no reasonable expectation of privacy, you have the right to record them. You must either announce to all parties being recorded that they are being recorded, or make it clear that they understand they are being recorded. You may record an officer as long as you do not interfere with their work. If an officer attempts to arrest you, try your best not to drop your camera, but do not resist arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Use it. The law is on your side.