A couple of years ago I was outside the White House taking pictures of a bomb-disposal robot that was being used to inspect a suspicious package, when a metro police officer told several of us we weren’t allowed to photograph the device.
But shortly after the incident was over, I asked one of the Secret Service “handlers” if I could get some shots. He told me, “Sure, go ahead,” and even offered to move the device around for me.
I relate this story because it is so similar a growing list of settlements resulting from police officers trying to prevent citizens from making audio and video recordings in public places.
Just last week a court in Boston ruled that a woman was within her First Amendment rights to record a police officer conducting a traffic stop. In another Boston case, the court ruled in favor of the defendant after he was arrested for recording police officers making an arrest in a public park.
In Maryland, police arrested a man taking video, then deleted his recording and subpoenaed his cell phone records. The court awarded the man a quarter of a million dollars and ruled he had the right to make the recording.
Now, some will argue that if the police tell you not to do something, you have to stop. But what if the police are wrong, and what you are doing is perfectly legal, and not causing anyone any harm?
And there is a world of difference between the police telling you to do something, like, “move along,” and telling you not to do something, like “stop taking photographs.”
What also needs to be noted here is that no one is advocating actions that interfere with police activities. Indeed, more and more media guidelines point out that reporters, and by extension, ordinary citizens, should not obstruct police activities.
But none of this, of course, prevents reporters, or private citizens, from recording police activities.
In all of these instances one has to ask, “Where is the harm in taking pictures?” And like they say in basketball, “no harm, no foul.”