The Social Cost of a First Amendment right to record the police arresting someone

August 26th, 2011

The First Circuit had this opinion finding a constitutional right. Implicit in this reasoning is judging the constitutionality of social cost.

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 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.”  . . .  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, see id. at 1034-35 (recognizing a core First Amendment interest in “the dissemination of information relating to alleged governmental misconduct”), but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally,

Think about this through the lens of social cost. So we have two competing interests–the individual right of freedom of the press (which applies not just to “journalists”) and the power of the state to provide for collective security (through police arrests that are not recorded, and thus unimpeded). Here, the court is particularly considered about the potential social costs of the police providing for collective security–what it refers to as “uncovering abuse,” “salutary effect,” etc. The court is less concerned about about the negative externalities of an individual filming the police, and how this could impede the ability to provide for collective safety (chilling government action out of fear of suits). So the social cost of the former is greater than the social cost of the latter. What happens? The shift. Deference is given to the inividual interest, and skepticism is given to the government’s interest in providing for collective safety. This is effectively strict scrutiny. And what happens? The individual wins, the government loses.

This passage so much confirms my theory:

In our society, police officers are expected to endure significant burdens caused by citizens’ exercise of their First Amendment rights. See City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461 (1987) (“[T]he First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.”). Indeed, “[t]he freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” Id. at 462-63. The same restraint demanded of law enforcement officers in the face of “provocative and challenging” speech, id. at 461 (quoting Terminiello v. Chicago,  337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949)), must be expected when they are merely the subject of videotaping that memorializes, without impairing, their work in public spaces.

And, the section about citizen journalists is kinda cool.

It is of no significance that the present case, unlike Iacobucci and many of those cited above, involves a private individual, and not a reporter, gathering information about public officials. The First Amendment right to gather news is, as the Court has often noted, not one that inures solely to the benefit of the news media; rather, the public’s right of access to information is coextensive with that of the press.  . . .

Moreover, changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw. The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders with a ready cell phone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew, and news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status. 

This passage is interesting, and is surely going to be cited in many other contexts.

And here comes the limitations (or not really):

To be sure, the right to film is not without limitations. It may be subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. See Smith, 212 F.3d at 1333. We have no occasion to explore those limitations here, however. On the facts alleged in the complaint, Glik’s exercise of his First Amendment rights fell well within the bounds of the Constitution’s protections. Glik filmed the defendant police officers in the Boston Common, the oldest city park in the United States and the apotheosis of a public forum. In such traditional public spaces, the rights of the state to limit the exercise of First Amendment activity are “sharply circumscribed.” . . .  Such peaceful recording of an arrest in a public space that does not interfere with the police officers’ performance of their duties is not reasonably subject to limitation.