Citizen Journalism Puts a Win in the First Amendment Column

We have all seen the videos of Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles, Oscar Grant’s death at the BART station in Oakland, Anthony Graber’s arrest for videotaping his own arrest in Maryland, and other “caught on video” scenes with public officials behaving outside the law or violating the rights of citizens.   The question brought before the US 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, is simple – is filming a public official in the performance of their duties a right guaranteed us  under the 1st amendment of the US Constitution?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (1st Amendment, US Constitution)

Montreal Fire DepartmentOn 26 August the US Court of Appeals issued their opinion, following a suit filed by the ALCU on behalf of Simon Glik, a citizen arrested on 1 October 2007 for filming a Boston Police take down of a man in Boston Commons.  Glik was standing in a public location, at least 10 feet away from the officers, when suspicion of excessive use of force prompted him to film the incident with his cell phone.  A Boston police officer challenged Glik on whether he was capturing audio with his film, and upon admitting he was, the officers arrested Glik under Massachusetts wiretap statute.

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 of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.”

…An important corollary to this interest in protecting the stock of public information is that “[t]here is an undoubted right to gather news ‘from any source by means within the law.'”

The filming 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 government 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.” (Case 10-1764)

This is a major win for citizens, and citizen journalists.  With “mainstream” media such as CNN recruiting “iReporters” for  their broadcasts, it is a clear message to the world traditional journalists cannot adequately cover world events, and citizen journalists have a role in filling coverage gaps during rapidly evolving events.

While we can acknowledge police officers and public officials will not always warmly embrace embrace this decision, it is the law.

Why it is Important to Support Citizen Journalism and the Right to Record Events

National and local newspapers are rapidly closing due to either mismanagement (the owners did not see the radical changes prompted by the digital age), bankruptcy, or combinations of both dynamics. The “Newspaper Deathwatch” website highlights the major newspapers that have closed in the past five years, and those which have either announced their demise or change to an all digital format.

With the loss of newspapers, the media industry is also losing experienced reporters, creating major shortfalls in coverage of public events (such as city hall meetings, school board meetings, etc), as well as incidents and events occurring within the community (such as accidents, fires, weather-related news, etc).

Among the more well-known sites which have closed or changed formats are:

  • Honolulu Advertiser (closed and merged with the Star-Bulletin)
  • Rocky Mountain News
  • Cincinnati Post
  • Baltimore Examiner
  • Seattle Post-Intelligencer
  • Detroit News/Free press
  • Christian Science Monitor

This means local news sources are becoming more scarce, depriving citizens of knowledge related to their local community.  The digital age supports gathering and recovering that knowledge, primarily through user generated content.  An emerging trend in news gathering and presentation is through hyper-local web sites focusing on individual communities or geographies.  As many startup hyper-local media sources are self-funded or lacking ample startup funding, the editors and owners do rely on citizen generated content to provide news to readers.

The US Court of Appeals in their decision on recording public officials and police have fortunately accepted and understood the changing technologies and media environment, acknowledging citizens recording  events are protected under the Bill of Rights, and those citizens are also protected from illegal arrest, search, or seizure of their media.

NOTE:  Attempts to contact the public affairs/information officer (PIO) at several Los Angeles area police departments were unsuccessful.  If the PIOs do eventually respond, we will update the blog with that response.  This is not meant to degrade the professionalism or courage of police officers,  rather it is meant to highlight citizen rights under the 1st and 4th amendments under the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

One Response to Citizen Journalism Puts a Win in the First Amendment Column

  1. You make some good points and I guess I had never really thought about the rights of “citizen journalists.” With so much going on in the world these days, I think they are probably a necessity.
    Like your blog and I’ll be back!

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