Court Defends Journalist’s First Amendment Rights

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Although the First Amendment protects citizen-journalists’ rights to photograph and record law enforcement officers in a public setting, officers continue to harass and even arrest citizens for exercising these rights. The First Amendment grants Americans the freedom to document, whether through print, photography, or film, public officials carrying out their duties in the public sphere. However, there have been several instances recently in which journalists have been arrested for photographing or recording officers behaving inappropriately. Do you see the problem here? Public officials, who are paid by the government to perform certain civic duties, are not only verbally harassing citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, but also physically harming and even arresting these individuals.
Four Circuits have already affirmed the rights of citizen-journalists to photograph public employees performing their jobs in a public setting. Recently, a journalist in Maryland filed a Complaint in Maryland District Court, claiming relief for being physically assaulted and unlawfully arrested by the local police. Garcia, the citizen-journalist who filed the Complaint, was accosted by officers when he was discovered photographing a separate incident nearby. However, Garcia did not begin photographing the police officers until he became aware of the excessive force used by these officers in making the arrests in the initial incident.
In Garcia’s Complaint, he cites evidence of his beating at the hands of local police officers and his subsequent unlawful arrest. Not only did these officers prevent Mr. Garcia from exercising his First Amendment right to photograph police activity in a public setting, but the officers also took the film from his camera prior to making the arrest. The officers never returned this film. Garcia’s Complaint even notes a correlation between the surge of police misconduct toward citizen-journalists in recent years, and the increasing popularity of websites such as YouTube, which hosts countless user-submitted videos documenting such police misconduct. Perhaps these officers, aware that Garcia potentially had photographic evidence of their misconduct, did not want their actions to end up in the media spotlight, like countless other documented episodes of police brutality.
As long as citizen-journalists are peaceful, and maintain a safe distance so as not to interfere with the arrest, their rights to document police activity, and that of other public officials, are strictly-protected. Accordingly, the local police department which employed these officers had a media relations policy that encouraged peaceful working relations with news media. The policy even stated that officers should treat the media as “invited guests” on crime scenes, rather than public nuisances, as Mr. Garcia was treated. This media relations policy encouraged the media to document newsworthy crime scenes, even noting that media should be granted greater access to the scene than other members of the public. The policy intended for media to be present at newsworthy incidents, believing their presence would portray the officers in a positive light for performing their duties satisfactorily. However, these particular officers clearly did not follow their department-wide media relations policy.
Citizen-journalists are encouraged to document the activity of police and other public officials to create more transparency in the federal government. Police misconduct in a public setting should be exposed. On the same note, positive acts of police and other public officials should also receive just as much publicity. Instead of accepting responsibility for their actions, and allowing Garcia to photograph the arrest, certain officers let their emotions get the best of them, knowing that Garcia had potentially-incriminating evidence of the officers’ excessive use of force in the initial arrest which sparked this incident. These officers abused their power, turning Garcia’s perfectly-legal actions against him.
Prior to his arrest, Garcia was not disturbing the peace, and he kept a reasonable distance from the officers. He did not interfere with the initial arrest in any way whatsoever. Garcia’s only mistake was photographing these officers in a compromising position. If Garcia had not noticed these officers acting inappropriately, however, these officers would not have taken issue with his photography at all. Garcia was punished for performing his civic duty; for documenting what he believed to be excessive force used by the police. He did not behave inappropriately, nor did he behave in a disorderly manner. He was simply exercising his First Amendment right. Public officials performing official duties should expect their actions to be recorded while in public. How else would these officials be held accountable for their actions? Officials certainly do not object to being photographed when they behave admirably. Consequently, the right of citizen-journalists, and all Americans, to photograph police and other public officials performing their duties in a public setting, will always be upheld, as long as these reporters do not interfere with the arrest, or behave in a disorderly manner.
As this case illustrates, your First Amendment rights are fiercely-protected. If you believe your First Amendment rights have been violated, do not hesitate to call the skilled attorneys as Coxwell & Associates today. To learn more about Civil Rights cases, please visit our website.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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