There is a First Amendment right to video or photograph the police doing their jobs. Plaintiffs were arrested for doing that, despite a city policy saying it was legal, and the district court ruled against them on the First Amendment claim but permitted the Fourth Amendment claim for the arrest to go to trial. Plaintiffs then dismissed the Fourth Amendment claims so the First Amendment claim could be appealed. Fields v. City of Philadelphia, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 12159 (3d Cir. July 7, 2017)*:
In 1991 George Holliday recorded video of the Los Angeles Police Department officers beating Rodney King and submitted it to the local news. Filming police on the job was rare then but common now. With advances in technology and the widespread ownership of smartphones, “civilian recording of police officers is ubiquitous.” Jocelyn Simonson, Copwatching, 104 Cal. L. Rev. 391, 408 (2016); see Seth F. Kreimer, Pervasive Image Capture and the First Amendment: Memory, Discourse, and the Right to Record, 159 U. Pa. L. Rev. 335, 337 (2011). These recordings have both exposed police misconduct and exonerated officers from errant charges. However, despite the growing frequency of private citizens recording police activity and its importance to all involved, some jurisdictions have attempted to regulate the extent of this practice. Individuals making recordings have also faced retaliation by officers, such as arrests on false criminal charges and even violence.
This case involves retaliation. Richard Fields and Amanda Geraci attempted to record Philadelphia police officers carrying out official duties in public and were retaliated against even though the Philadelphia Police Department’s official policies recognized that “[p]rivate individuals [*4] have a First Amendment right to observe and record police officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties.” J.A. 1187. No party contested the existence of the First Amendment right. Yet the District Court concluded that neither Plaintiff had engaged in First Amendment activity because the conduct—the act of recording—was not sufficiently expressive. However, this case is not about whether Plaintiffs expressed themselves through conduct. It is whether they have a First Amendment right of access to information about how our public servants operate in public.
Every Circuit Court of Appeals to address this issue (First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh) has held that there is a First Amendment right to record police activity in public. See Turner v. Lieutenant Driver, 848 F.3d 678 (5th Cir. 2017); Gericke v. Begin, 753 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2014); Am. Civil Liberties Union of Ill. v. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583 (7th Cir. 2012); Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78 (1st Cir. 2011); Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332 (11th Cir. 2000); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436 (9th Cir. 1995). Today we join this growing consensus. Simply put, the First Amendment protects the act of photographing, filming, or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public.