In the recent case, Glik v. Cunnifee, 665 F.3d 78 (2011), the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston recently held that the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to make video and audio recordings of police officers arresting people on the street. The federal court decision was particularly relevant in New Hampshire, where police officers in Manchester, Nashua, Weare, Portsmouth and Keene, have recently charged citizens with violating the New Hampshire wiretap statute for recording police officers performing their pubic duties.
Mr. Glik observed and recorded Boston police officers arresting a citizen on Boston Common. Believing that the police were using excessive force, Glik advised the police that he was capturing their actions on video. The police arrested Mr. Glik and charged him with violating the Massachusetts wiretap statute. His criminal charges were ultimately dismissed and Mr. Glik then sued the officers involved and the City of Boston for violating his civil rights. The police and the city asked the court to dismiss the civil rights claim, but the court denied their request.
The court held that the protections of the First Amendment are not limited to the mere act of speaking or publishing words that the government may not like. “It is firmly established that the First Amendment’s aegis extends further than the text’s proscription on laws abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information. As the Supreme Court has observed, the First Amendment goes beyond protection for the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit the government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.”
The Court continued, writing that “the filing of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these principles. Gathering information about public officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting the free discussion of governmental affairs. The court concluded by stating that, “the freedom of individually verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”
Police officers do not have easy jobs. However, the mere fact that performing their day to day activities may require them to endure certain unpleasantries does not change the fact that they perform their public duties in the name of the public, using equipment provided by the public, and to serve a public purpose. Monitoring and even criticizing the use of public authority and funding goes to the very heart of citizen activism that the First Amendment was specifically written to protect. The First Circuit Court of Appeals decided this case correctly and protected the public’s right to know.