A U.S. federal court recently confirmed that all U.S. residents have the right to film the police in the course of their duties. Although quite a few legal scholars already held this opinion, this is the first appeals court ruling affirming the right to film for the Third Circuit. After this significant ruling, half of all U.S. states have judicially protected police filming rights. The most recent ruling elucidates that this right is an integral part of First Amendment freedoms. This is a major victory for policing reform advocates. According to the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, police officers must accept filming because they are public officials doing their duties in the public realm.
This ruling is particular relevant during a time when relations between local communities and U.S. police departments remain fraught. This Third Circuit ruling may well inspire many departments to conduct their operations with greater transparency. The rise of handheld devices with cameras has made it increasingly common for videos of police actions to make their way online.
In its unanimous decision, the Third Circuit affirmed the positive value of filming the police. The court argued that as long as those filming do not directly interfere with the police, such filming helps ensure that the local government is held accountable for its actions and policies. The court also argued that this ruling does not create winners and losers. On the contrary, the ruling stated, the filming of police fuels a dialogue that can ultimately benefit police officers themselves. After this historic ruling, as many as 60 percent of U.S. residents live in states where the right to film police is judicially protected. Though no federal court has contradicted this right in any state, the question of filming remains unaddressed in half of the states.
The Supreme Court has not had yet its say on this specific legal issue. However, a number of legal scholars have noted that in the past decade, the Supreme Court has adopted a fairly expansive view of the First Amendment. Indeed, the Roberts Court has consistently defended the First Amendment vigorously. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court specifically address the recording of police officers. If this does happen, legal scholars believe it could be one of the most momentous judgments in the recent history of the nation’s highest court. For now, people across the nation have been emboldened to record the police in a variety of different settings.