By Alex Lloyd Gross
It has always been legal to film the police.. Unfortunately, in 2016 a Federal Judge erred in a huge way, when he upheld the conviction of two different people arrested for filming police activity. Justice Mark A. Kearney apparently was not paying attention when his law school taught Constitutional Law , or he interpreted it into a convoluted, scary decision that , if not challenged could lead to bedlam, mass arrests and severely hamper working journalists. In short, because the two people arrested were simply video taping and not making commentary, they had no right to film.
Just last week, the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that decision, after a careful review of the facts. It was a solid victory for the US Constitution. The judges said in part :”The First Amendment protects actual photos, videos, and recordings, […] and for this protection to have meaning the Amendment must also protect the act of creating that material.” Because of the original ruling by Judge Kearney, that set in motion a very expensive and protracted legal challenge that will cost the cash strapped city of Philadelphia hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and court settlements.
The matter all stemmed from two Philadelphia Police Officers that flagrantly disregarded a policy put in place by then Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. Ramsey was not amused when he found his department in the center of the cross hairs of the national media and highly skilled civil rights lawyers. Kearney’s ruling could not have come at a worse time, as the city was just months away from hosting the Democratic National Convention. Days before the convention, the city held workshops with Mickey Osterreicher , council for the National Press Photographers Association. During those workshops, “Don[t interfere with the camera” was drummed into the heads of cops and commanders. For the most part it worked. However, there is always one person that can attend 10,000 hours of training and then they do what they want. Lt. Hawkins , proved himself a liability to the Philadelphia Police Department during the convention, when he threatened to arrest anyone taking photos at a protest on Broad Street. The fact that he is a lieutenant is even more shocking.
This ruling does not mean you can walk all over the area with a cell phone recording. What is means is that if you are at an accident or crime scene and people who are not photographing the event are standing somewhere, you can stand there and cannot be singled out for recording. A cop or firefighter that requests you stop taking photos is only making a request. No official action can be taken against you should you refuse that request. You cannot be moved back if the public is allowed to remain. You cannot be arrested. If the area is safe for bystanders to be without a camera, it is safe for you. You must stay behind barricade tape . You cannot interfere with any rescue operations or arrest. A press card is not required to stand with the general public with a camera.
In fact, many municipalities, including Philadelphia have stopped the issuance of media credentials, stemming from lawsuits filed by those that were denied. This practice has generated a security risk, as a plethora of home made credentials have popped up. There is no vetting process and a terrorist or other bad guy can disguise themselves as a working media person in order to get closer to their target.
Osterreicher said previously that the ruling would come , but Kearney’s ruling only insured that a more definitive ruling would happen. This ruling is the law of the land and will not be appealed or overturned.