To the paranoid among us, it sometimes seems that government is trying too hard to harness technology as a force for controlling the citizenry, rather than the other way around. Video surveillance has long been commonplace in public buildings and transportation terminals in the United States, and it’s now used to enforce traffic laws. So it’s a little offputting to learn of police officers in the United States who become not only camera shy, but peevish, when a citizen points a lens at them. That was the case in Boston recently, when citizen Simon Glik was arrested for using his cell phone’s digital video camera to film several police officers arresting a man, using force that Glik thought to be excessive. It looks like the Boston police were not only wrong to do so, but the police officers in question may end up being held personally liable to Glik. Although this is not the end of the matter, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has just confirmed that Americans have a Constitutional right under the First Amendment to videotape police carrying out their duties in public:
The First Amendment issue here is, as the parties frame it, fairly narrow: is there a constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public? Basic First Amendment principles, along with case law from this and other circuits, answer that question unambiguously in the affirmative. . . .
The filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these [well established] principles. Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting “the free discussion of governmental affairs.” . . . Moreover, as the Court has noted, “[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because ‘[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.'” . . . This is particularly true of law enforcement officials, who are granted substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties. . . . Ensuring the public’s right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses . . . but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally . . .