First Amendment – videos under fire

The camera phone is great for taking selfies and silliness or for turning any crime-conscious, concerned, or curious citizen into a news capturing machine and giving rise to a new term, “citizen journalist.”

On April 4, 2015 North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager stopped Walter Scott for a broken brake light. For unknown reasons the officer made Scott exit his vehicle and detained him. When Scott bolted and ran, Slager shot him multiple times in the back with his service revolver, reporting later that he shot Scott because the motorist struggled to take his Taser and he "feared for his life." The incident would have ended there and shortly forgotten if not for a youth who captured the murder on camera phone.

If such incidents on the news in recent years make you wonder why police misconduct is on the rise, I contend it is not. In fact, I believe our police officers are better trained and more citizen-conscious than ever before. However, there are some police who are going to make mistakes under pressure and a much, much fewer number who are outright bad cops. But the camera phone is now pulling the veil off bogus reports like “The suspect was resisting arrest,” “The suspect made an aggressive move toward me,” and “He tried to get my gun and I feared for my life.”

It is currently legal in all 50 states of the U.S. to video police activity and a Supreme Court ruling fortifies that videoing police activity is protected by the First Article of the Constitution, yet there are still incidents of police baring citizen from videoing and even police threatening photographers with arrest.

Restrictions are proposed that may limit the recording of police activity. A strict right to privacy bill was passed in 2014 in Illinois that no one could video or photograph anyone anywhere without prior consent of the individual, and for a time police there occasionally enjoyed enforcing a policy that no police activity, such as an arrest, could be videoed without prior consent of the person being arrested and the police officer. That bill was revised.

There are currently bills in their infancy in some states, including my own of Texas, requiring a sizable distance between the camera operator and the action. Supporters of the bill reason for the safety of the camera operator and that a photographer getting close to police can impede their duties. Such a bill has its merits but completely removes the ability of citizens to protect themselves with their own camera because, of course, you can not be a sizable distance from your camera and video yourself. So if you are stopped, detained or questioned you may not be able to use your camera if this bill is passed. Even if someone does video an incident from a distance, you may make an officer go berserk, like in this video.

Click here for an overview of current photographers rights presented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The American Civil Liberties Union has produced an app available in New York, California, Missouri, Oregon, Mississippi, and soon other states called Mobile Justice which will automatically upload a video to the ACLU database for reviewing, eliminating the possibility of loosing a video by having your phone confiscated or destroyed. Some commercial cloud programs offer immediate cloud uploading with a paid premium account.

<NEW>  Here is a lengthy news report about Texas video laws under debate and groups that call themselves "cop watchers."

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