Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On the First Amendment: Videotaping the Police

So here's an issue that has been popping up more and more recently over the past couple of years. There have been a sudden increase in cases where the police, finding themselves being recorded by random passerby or by someone they approached, have decided to arrest somebody. For videotaping them. In public.

Now, I can understand why a police force would not want to have cameras around all the time. If you're setting up a drug bust or about to raid a hostage situation, you don't want some geek with an iPhone recording the SWAT teams' movements and streaming it to Youtube. That's about as common sense as not using our freedom of speech to yell fire in a movie theater. The rights of the first amendment are typically limited when we are actively endangering the safety and rights of others.

At the same time, I don't see any reason that a routine traffic stop or other every day law enforcement activity shouldn't be recorded. The police are in public. It's not like there's an expectation of privacy or something. In fact most police are probably already making a recording of the event, through cameras mounted on their cars or more recently smaller cameras that they carry. Some police will go on to sell that recording to shows that literally specialize in police stops, car chases or other things like that. I doubt that there is a satisfactory reason to be selling footage of such things to Cops, The First 48, and America's Wildest Police Videos when you aren't permitting your own citizens to make footage of the event on their own.

An argument that the right to a free press only extends to official news outlets is just as dumb. The press was never concieved to be limited to any particular set of people. Keep in mind that the men who wrote these amendments also campaigned for their freedom and then the Constitution as a whole by running off a bunch of pamphlets--the Revoluntionary War version of blog posts--and distributed them through the population. I doubt they waited to be recognized by the community at large as a news organization before they did so; otherwise the Federalist Papers would never have existed.

The only real reason to arrest these people--many of whom have been on their own property and not even really involved in the police action at all--is to avoid embarassment. Policemen are worried that some moron in their ranks is going to do something stupid, and the video will go viral. Such videos erode confidence in the police force and would lead to a less orderly society.

Of course, the best solution to something like that isn't to limit video of the police. It's to fire the idiots who screw things up for the good cops. Hiding the fact that police abuses exists only worsens the problem, which is why the Founders sought to guarantee the right to a free press to begin with. The ability to expose the corruptions of government officials, to talk about and share information without having to worry about what people in power would want, is critical to maintaining a free society. Compromising that right just to keep the police from looking bad is foolish and short sighted.

Or at least, that's my take on it. What do you guys think?

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