I’m sure everyone can remember a YouTube video of police brutality or an invasive TSA pat-down that made them cringe. Imagine all of the encounters that never make it to the internet. Those moments are only made public because of someone exercises their First Amendment right.
It is legal to film police in public. There have been a few cases of individuals being prosecuted for filming police but they were charged under antiquated wiretapping laws. These laws were in place many years ago to protect individuals from being recorded in a private conversation. When officers arrested someone for filming, the only related law a District Attorney could find on the books to prosecute were the wiretapping laws.
A recent US Supreme Court action finally put an end to this practice. By choosing not to hear the pleas of ACLU v. Alvarez, the court left in place a US Federal Appeals Court ruling that declared Illinois’ application of its wiretapping laws to police filming to be a violation of the First Amendment.
This was clearly the right decision, however, there will still be problems. As UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh explains in a Reason TV interview, “sometimes not even all police offers know what the law is”. A cop may arrest you after you disobey his order to stop filming but the worst case scenario would be a couple hours at the station.
There is some good news. A growing number of law enforcement officials are reasserting their proper role to protect citizens’ Constitutional rights. During the Thanksgiving travel weekend there was a grassroots movement to inform travelers of the danger of TSA’s bodyscanners and film the invasive pat-downs. An airport official at Albany International Airport demanded activists show ID, stop filming, and be arrested for breaking the law. And so the law enforcement was called to the scene. The Sheriff told the airport official that the activists were doing nothing wrong and he could not arrest them or order them to produce identification. You can view the encounter here.
Unfortunately, not all members of the law enforcement community act like those in the above situation. Intimidation and threats of arrest are enough to make most activists stop filming. But keep in mind it still is legal to film the police.