In the past year, the Occupy Wall Street protests have brought to the fore a disturbing national trend: local law enforcement agencies' continued and brazen disregard for the First Amendment rights of citizens and journalists attempting to legally record significant moments.
This happened recently in Chicago in what has quickly become an iconic moment, primarily because it was recorded – with crystal clarity – on video.
NBC photographer Donte Williams and WGN reporter Dan Ponce were detained outside Mt. Sinai Hospital while standing on the sidewalk, attempting to cover a tragic local story.
Witness the unsettling scene:
The above video is emblematic of a dire trend documented by several journalistic organizations, including the organization to which Mr. Williams belongs:
NBC/WGN journalists detained after told their first amendment rights can be terminated for doing their job.
The National Press Photographers Association claims it has documented 70 such arrests since September and, in May, called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to focus attention on the issue.Bob Sullivan at MSNBC notes, correctly, the tragic irony embedded in all of this: that at a time in which police surveillance techniques give the authorities vast tracking capabilities, the rights of journalists and citizens are (wrongly) being curbed and stymied.
"The First Amendment has come under assault on the streets of America," the photography association said in a letter to Holder that was also signed by several other interest groups. "Police have arrested dozens of journalists and activists simply for attempting to document political protests in public spaces.”
First Amendment law is clear: Citizens in public spaces have a right to film things they see in plain sight. Courts have repeatedly upheld that right in high-profile cases.If there's one thing I'd like to see this (and other such stories) do, it would be to inspire citizens to legally film police officers in public spaces as a massive demonstration, as a way to collectively state: this is my legal right, whether you like that fact or not.
Court rulings sometimes have no bearing during intense situations, however.
"It wouldn't really matter with some police officers if you had an original copy of Bill of Rights with you," said Mickey Osterreicher, a lawyer for the press photographers association. He said he deals with new cases nearly every day involving photographers who he believes have been wrongly arrested.
"The sign on my desk that reads, 'Bang head here,' is getting worn out," he said.
My cell phone is at the ready.
Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG
Many distressing incidents of police violating the First Amendment rights of citizens and the press have come when such citizens and journalists were filming direct police actions.
Doing so makes many officers testy.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals (First Circuit) affirmed, in 2011, that filming police in a public space is a First Amendment right, and that arresting or detaining anyone for doing so is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Here is the complete ruling.