Citizens and Journalists Have the Right to Record You, Memo States
By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: The NYPD has issued an internal memo that firmly reminds New York City police officers that the public is legally allowed to record officers and police activity.
“Intentional interference such as blocking or obstructing cameras or ordering the person to cease constitutes censorship and also violates the First Amendment,” the memo states.
The memo comes as NYPD officers and police in cities nationwide are increasingly being caught violating those rights – confiscating cell phone cameras, destroying memory cards and going so far as assaulting and arresting citizens and journalists who are legally recording them or taking their photographs.
As long as you don’t get in the way of police doing their jobs, “There’s no law anywhere in the United States that prohibits people from recording the police on the street, in a park, or any other place where the public is generally allowed,” Mickey Osterreicher, a lawyer for the National Press Photographers Association told the Huffington Post after the NYPD memo was issued.
The NYPD, the nation’s largest police force with more than 32,000 officers, has legal agreements dating back to the 1970s that require the department to train and educate officers on the rights of citizens to document public police activities.
Yet police often behave as if they’ve never heard it. Just this week, for instance, the department agreed to pay $125,000 to a man who spotted three youths being searched in 2012 and began taking cell phone pictures from his car. Police yanked him out of his car, arrested him and allegedly deleted his photos, the NY Daily News reported.
“I think that there are many officers that believe that the minute they tell somebody to do or not do something, that that’s an order,” Osterreicher said. “But police can only order somebody to do or not do something based on the law, and there is no law that says you can not record or photograph out in public.”
The NYPD memo is similar to directives that police officials in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore issued in 2012.
“A bystander has the right under the First Amendment to observe and record members in the public discharge of their duties,” Washington’s six-page order states.
Baltimore’s seven-page order, as reported by the Baltimore Sun, “warns officers that merely taking photographs or video of police activity ‘does not constitute probable cause and should never be the reason for any arrest.’ The directive says the bystander must have broken laws, such as interfering or disorderly conduct, to be put in handcuffs.”
A long list of alleged police misconduct toward photojournalists and citizen photographers most recently includes multiple arrests of, and threats of violence toward, professional reporters and photojournalists covering the uprising in Ferguson, Mo., following the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer.
Among many other examples:
- In April 2014, Shawn Thomas, a freelance New York photographer, was charged with obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest, trespass and disorderly conduct after recording a police stop in Brooklyn.
- In February 2014, Baltimore County police announced they were investigating a confrontation between an officer and a man filming an arrest in Towson, Md.
- On Sept. 3, 2013, police in Hawthorne, California arrested a man videotaping them in public, then shot his dog when it came to the man’s aid.
The New York police memo comes less than a month after a federal lawsuit was filed against the city seeking a permanent injunction barring NYC employees from retaliating against people who record them in public.
Filed on behalf of people arrested, the suit cited eight incidents in which officers arrested people who were recording in public, ordered them to leave or deleted images from cameras and cell phones.
The suit asks the court to declare that people have the right under the First Amendment to film or record officers working in public places.
In a 2012 case against the Baltimore Police Department, the federal Department of Justice weighed in with a statement urging the court to find “that private individuals have a First Amendment right to record police officers in the public discharge of their duties” and that officers “violate individual Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they seize or destroy such recordings without warrant or due process.”
With confrontations between police and photographers on the rise, the American Civil Liberties Union posted a memo online in July advising citizens of their Constitutional rights:
“Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right – and that includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties.”
“Unfortunately,” the memo also states, “there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply.”