Many Public Servants Do Not Want You Recording Them
May 12, 2011: Emily Good was arrested in Rochester, New York, for videotaping police officers. Good was standing in her yard at the time.
May 31, 2011: Narces Benoit captured images on his cell phone of police shooting and killing a man in Miami Beach. Police demanded he turn over the phone and promptly smashed it.
Benoit had removed the phone’s SIM card and put it in his mouth first. He later sold the shocking video to CNN.
It’s not just passers-by and people on the street, either. Official news crews are being told to turn off cameras at the slightest hint of controversy or impropriety. On July 29, 2011, news cameraperson Phil Datz was arrested in Bohemia, New York by Suffolk County police for filming an arrest. The officer yelled at him to stop filming, scrutinized his press pass, and arrested him for “obstruction of governmental administration."
Obstruction is a common excuse for arresting -- and silencing -- filming of police officers and scenes. Even more commonly, however, police invoke wiretapping and eavesdropping laws to claim that the police officers’ rights are being infringed by being recorded without their consent. It’s illegal in 12 states to record someone without all parties involved consenting. However, all but two of these states have a privacy provision that provides protection for recording in public places -- if you’re speaking at a town hall meeting, for example, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Massachusetts, however, only allows open recording of police. Recording police secretly is illegal in Massachusetts. And Illinois’ legislature passed the most draconian anti-recording law in the nation, specifically stating that it is illegal to record police under any circumstances.
Are such laws even legal? Is charging someone with a felony for recording an arrest on your camera phone constitutional? That’s still up for debate. Illinois courts are expected to hand down a ruling in 2012 on a case the ACLU has brought challenging Illinois’ “No taping police under any circumstances" law on First Amendment grounds. The argument is that the law prevents citizens from exercising their First Amendment right to record what government officials do in public.
And even in states without draconian recording laws, police often claim recording them is illegal although it is not. If you're "caught" shooting footage of police with your camera phone, you face arrest and confiscation or even destruction of your phone. It doesn't matter that in the end you'll be vindicated. All the officer cares about at that moment is stopping you from recording them, knowing they'll face little to no repercussions for their behavior.