The week following the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo. police officer has been met with protests and rioting. Reports from the Ferguson police department indicate that law enforcement officers have been brusque in their treatment of media representatives who have filmed protest events on cameras or smart phones. Some officers allegedly confiscated a phone and erased footage of a fatal beating.
Journalists Wesley Lowery, Pulitzer Prize winner from the Washington Post, and Ryan Reilly, representing the Huffington Post, were arrested on August 13th at a protest in a Ferguson McDonald’s. Lowery tweeted that they were arrested because the police “decided we weren’t leaving McDonalds quickly enough, shouldn’t have been taping them.”
Legally, citizens have the right under the First Amendment to film public events. Protests and riots are public events, and as such, police behavior at these events is considered public. The only instance where filming an officer at a public event is illegal is if the act of filming obstructs the officer in the line of duty.
Active duty officers often treat this type of First Amendment issue fluidly. Clay Calvert, Professor of Mass Communication at the University of Florida, saw no evidence that the journalists were impeding with police work and saw no legal basis for the officers to arrest the journalists. However, according to Calvert, officers who are under extreme stress or who fear their authority will be undermined in a sensitive situation will often overlook First Amendment issues.
While events in Ferguson are still unfolding, the NYPD is all too aware of its officers having a disdain for being filmed. Shortly after the strangulation of Eric Garner by an officer, which was filmed by a witness and released online, the NYPD department chief released a memo to all officers.
“Members of the public are legally allowed to record police interactions. Intentional interference such as blocking or obstructing cameras or ordering the person to cease constitutes censorship and also violates the First Amendment.”
Experts seem to agree that filming police activities is legal. But Christopher Pisciotta, Eric Garner’s attorney for his previous legal troubles, advises caution. While he believes that when used properly, taping police incidents can serve as a valuable courtroom tool, officers can still view the act of filming as interference and use it as grounds for arrest. “If you do it too close…they will arrest you.”
Written by Shayna Keyles