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Third Circuit Appeals Court Establishes First Amendment Right To Record Police


Early last year, a federal court judge decided filming police officers was not protected by the First Amendment. How the court arrived at this conclusion was by narrowly defining the First Amendment as only protecting "expressive" speech. Simply documenting activity was somehow not covered by the First Amendment, according to the government's theory (the city of Philadelphia, in this case).

According to the district court, expression is key. It was the wrong conclusion to reach, but it helped some Philadelphia police officers escape being held accountable for retaliatory arrests of citizen photographers. Even worse, it created a chilling effect for citizen photographers in the court's jurisdiction, giving them a publish or die be arrested mandate.

At that time, it seemed unlikely the Third Circuit Appeals Court would overturn its own precedential rulings. The Appeals Court had never gone so far as to establish a First Amendment right to record public officials. In fact, precedent had mostly sided with law enforcement officers who had been sued for shutting down recordings. An affirmation on appeal would have resulted in a circuit split that could only be resolved if and when the Supreme Court chose to take up a case directly related to this issue.

Fortunately, the Third Circuit Court has reversed the lower court's finding, at least in terms of the First Amendment. This adds to the list of circuits already viewing recordings of cops as protected speech. The issue appears to be (slowly) resolving itself without the Supreme Court's assistance.

The ruling [PDF] is a fantastic read, at least as far as its handling of the First Amendment goes. The opening makes it clear the lower court screwed this up badly. [h/t Brad Heath]

This case involves retaliation. Richard Fields and Amanda Geraci attempted to record Philadelphia police officers carrying out official duties in public and were retaliated against even though the Philadelphia Police Department’s official policies recognized that “[p]rivate individuals have a First Amendment right to observe and record police officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties.” No party contested the existence of the First Amendment right. Yet the District Court concluded that neither Plaintiff had engaged in First Amendment activity because the conduct—the act of recording—was not sufficiently expressive. However, this case is not about whether Plaintiffs expressed themselves through conduct. It is whether they have a First Amendment right of access to information about how our public servants operate in public.

Every Circuit Court of Appeals to address this issue (First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh) has held that there is a First Amendment right to record police activity in public. See Turner v. Lieutenant Driver, 848 F.3d 678 (5th Cir. 2017); Gericke v. Begin, 753 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2014); Am. Civil Liberties Union of Ill. v. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583 (7th Cir. 2012); Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78 (1st Cir. 2011); Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332 (11th Cir. 2000); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436 (9th Cir. 1995). Today we join this growing consensus. Simply put, the First Amendment protects the act of photographing, filming, or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public.

This establishes citizen photography as protected speech, no matter what the photographer's intent is. The protection here has very little to do with expression, no matter how much the defendants wish it was. Instead, it has everything to do with access.

To record what there is the right for the eye to see or the ear to hear corroborates or lays aside subjective impressions for objective facts. Hence to record is to see and hear more accurately. Recordings also facilitate discussion because of the ease in which they can be widely distributed via different forms of media. Accordingly, recording police activity in public falls squarely within the First Amendment right of access to information. As no doubt the press has this right, so does the public.

[...]

In sum, under the First Amendment’s right of access to information the public has the commensurate right to record—photograph, film, or audio record—police officers conducting official police activity in public areas.

In the Third Circuit, cops can no longer expect to shielded from lawsuits related to shutting down citizens' recording efforts.

As was noted by the court, the right likely should have been established at the time the incident took place (2014).

In 2011 the Department published a memorandum advising officers not to interfere with a private citizen’s recording of police activity because it was protected by the First Amendment. In 2012 it published an official directive reiterating that this right existed. Both the memorandum and directive were read to police officers during roll call for three straight days. And in 2014, after the events in our case and the occurrence of other similar incidents, the Department instituted a formal training program to ensure that officers ceased retaliating against bystanders who recorded their activities.

Unfortunately, the court still sides with the officers, stating that precedent from various circuits did not divorce the act of recording entirely from the concept of "expression." At the point the arrests occurred, it may have seemed reasonable to shut down citizens who attempted to record police if they couldn't clearly state an "expressive" reason for doing so. And that's apparently ok even if the officers had received repeated instructions from their supervisors about respecting the public's right to record.

The dissent disagrees with this conclusion. It wasn't just court precedent and the PD's own directives. Officers also should have been aware of the DOJ's directive along the same lines, which was handed down in 2012 to all local law enforcement agencies urging them to respect the public's "right to record."

With all of this, it is indisputable that all officers in the Philadelphia Police Department were put on actual notice that they were required to uphold the First Amendment right to make recordings of police activity. From a practical perspective, the police officers had no ground to claim ambiguity about the boundaries of the citizens’ constitutional right here.

Even absent this wealth of directives, any officer should have "reasonably" known retaliating against citizens for recording in public was the wrong way to handle this.

A reasonable police officer would have understood, first-hand, the significance of this proliferation of personal electronic devices that have integrated image capture into our daily lives, making it a routine aspect of the way in which people record and communicate events. Apart from any court ruling or official directive, the officers’ own lived experience with personal electronic devices (both from the perspective of being the one who is recording and one who is being recorded) makes it unreasonable to assume that the police officers were oblivious to the First Amendment implications of any attempt by them to curtail such recordings.

The upshot is the judicial enshrinement of the right to record police. The downside for the plaintiffs is the officers can't be sued for violating what should have been considered a clearly established right, even before the Appeals Court decision.

The way things are going, the Supreme Court may never have to address the issue. As the presiding judges note (both in the opinion and during oral arguments), the establishment of this right across the nation is inevitable. As more circuits address the issue head-on, the rulings should result in further First Amendment wins.

As a side note, the oral arguments are an amazing watch. The government's lawyer desperately wants the discussion to center on questions of immunity, but the court is far more interested in how he intends to argue speech must be tied to expressive intent to receive First Amendment protections. The fun starts about 19:45 into the recording. By the time a judge brings up the Zapruder recording ten minutes later, you almost feel sorry for the government's legal rep.


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