By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania
On February 19, 2016, a federal trial court judge in Philadelphia ruled that there is no First Amendment right to record the police—unless you make it clear that you are recording for the purpose of criticizing the police. The ruling has confused lawyers and non-lawyers alike. We’ll break it all down for you.
What was the case about?
The ACLU-PA has filed several lawsuits against the City of Philadelphia on behalf of people who were arrested or detained for attempting to photograph or record the Philadelphia police performing their duties in public. The ACLU alleges that, for years, the City has ignored substantial evidence that Philadelphia police officers routinely retaliate against people who record them, and has failed to adequately train, supervise, or discipline officers. The two plaintiffs in these cases, Rick Fields and Amanda Geraci, filed the fourth and fifth lawsuits in the series.
In September 2013, Rick Fields, a Temple undergraduate student, observed approximately 20 police officers clearing out a house party across the street. He paused on the sidewalk to take a photo of the scene with his iPhone, and a police officer asked him whether he enjoyed photographing grown men and ordered him to leave. The officer then arrested Fields and cited him with obstructing a highway.
In September 2012, Amanda Geraci was serving as a legal observer at an anti-fracking protest at the Convention Center. When a protestor got arrested, Geraci tried to take photos of the arrest (as legal observers are trained to do), and a police officer pinned her up against a column and restrained her across the neck.
What happened in the trial court?
The trial court granted what’s known as “summary judgment” to the defendants, throwing out Fields’ and Geraci’s First Amendment claims. Here’s how the judge who decided the case, the Honorable Mark A. Kearney, framed the issue:
[Rick Fields and Amanda Geraci] never told the police why they were capturing images of the police interacting with people they did not know. They were watching their police officers in action and wanted to capture the images because, at least for one of the citizens, “[i]t was an interesting scene. It would make a good picture” and for the other because she is a legal observer trained to observe the police. The question is whether citizens also enjoy a First Amendment right to photograph police absent any criticism or challenge to police conduct.
Judge Kearney’s answer was “no.” Here are excerpts of his explanation:
Neither [Fields nor Geraci] uttered any words to the effect he or she sought to take pictures to oppose police activity. Their particular behavior is only afforded First Amendment protection if we construe it as expressive conduct. . . .
Fields and Geraci essentially concede they spoke no words or conduct expressing criticism of the police before or during their image capture. They instead want to persuade us “observing” and “recording” police activity is expressive conduct entitled to First Amendment protection as a matter of law. In their view, observing is a component of “criticizing” and citizens may engage in speech critical of the government. We find no controlling authority compelling this broad a reading of First Amendment precedent.
Is the ACLU appealing?
Heck yes. We filed notices of appeal on March 21, 2016.
What have other courts said about whether there’s a First Amendment right to record the police?
The ability to scrutinize the actions of public officials is at the core of what the First Amendment is supposed to protect. The First Amendment protects access to information about the government as well as free expression. So every federal appeals court in the last decade and a half that has considered whether there’s a First Amendment right to record the police has ruled that, yes, there is. In other words, Judge Kearney’s ruling goes against the weight of authority. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (the federal appeals court that covers Pennsylvania) hasn’t yet addressed that question. But the Fields and Geraci appeals will allow the Third Circuit a chance to weigh in soon.
Does the trial court decision in Fields and Geraci mean it is currently illegal to record the police in Philadelphia? Can I now be arrested in Philadelphia for taking pictures of the police?
NO! Even if there were no constitutional right to record the police (and, again, we think there absolutely is such a right), that doesn’t make it illegal to record the police. There is no law that prohibits you from recording the police. Police can only stop you or arrest you if they suspect you of a crime. Recording the police is not a crime. So it’s not a valid basis for a stop or an arrest.
And it’s worth noting that the Philadelphia Police Department agrees with the ACLU’s view of the First Amendment. Since November 2012, the official written policy of the Philadelphia Police Department has said that civilians do have a First Amendment right to record the police, and that police officers should expect to be recorded when they are out in public, and should not interfere with attempts to record them.
So by all means, go download our Mobile Justice app, and use it to record the police in public places. Civilian recordings are a vital tool for deterring police abuse and holding the police accountable when they cross the line. And if you have any questions about what you can and can’t do in Pennsylvania, read our “Know Your Rights” brochure about the right to record the police. Judge Kearney’s ruling doesn’t change anything in there.
So if I am still free to record the police, why does it matter whether or not the First Amendment protects that right?
Without a recognized First Amendment right to record the police, a legislature could pass a law making it illegal. Sound crazy? Well, Texas already tried to pass a law that would prohibit anyone standing within 25 feet of a police officer from recording them—whether or not they were in any way interfering with police activities. Constitutional protection is necessary to prevent that kind of legislative attack on our fundamental freedoms.
In addition, having the courts recognize a First Amendment right to record the police sends an important message. Like many public officials, police officers take an oath to uphold the Constitution. It’s important to establish that protecting the Constitution means respecting the public’s right to observe and record the police—a critical means of holding the police accountable for misconduct.
Molly Tack-Hooper started at the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a volunteer legal fellow in 2010-2011 and returned in 2013 as a staff attorney focusing on civil liberties issues arising in Central Pennsylvania and on immigrants’ rights. Molly is an active member of the Philadelphia Bar Association, serving as co-chair of the Civil Rights Committee in 2015 and 2016 and vice-chair of the Public Interest Section in 2016.