Posts

When Filming is a Protected First Amendment Right

In 2014, the United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio, determined that citizens have a clearly established constitutional right to film police officers performing their duties. See Crawford v. Geiger, 996 F.Supp.2d 603 (N.D. Ohio 2014). Federal courts across the country, including the First, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeal, have upheld an individual’s right to record officers. Id. at 617. The opinion in Crawford noted that freedom of the press gives the general public the right to record events considered “newsworthy.” New technology allows for almost instantaneous distribution of this newsworthy content. Id. at 61.

At the time of the decision in Crawford, no federal appellate court considering the issue had ruled against a citizen filming police. Id. at 617. While recognizing a constitutional right to film police officers, the right is not absolute. “[A]s of August 26, 2012, the right of a citizen to film police activity in a public setting where there was no present danger of harm to officers or others was clearly established.” Id. at 616.

An individual in the Northern District of Ohio has a constitutionally protected right to record an officer performing his or her duties. However, officers can limit recordings when members of the public actually interfere with police activities, create an unsafe environment, or prevent officers from doing their jobs. Annoyance at the presence of a news-gathering citizen is not enough to limit filming. If a citizen creates a dangerous situation by recording an officer’s activities, the officer should ask the citizen to stop recording; however, the officer should not take the recording device and/or search it without a warrant. Failure to obtain a search warrant may result in additional constitutional violations. Public policy favors dissemination of information on government action, which is reinforced with the decision in Crawford protecting the public’s right to record police officers.