Federal Appeals Court Upholds Citizens’ Right to Record Police Activity

Posted on February 23, 2017

In a 2-1 decision, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that citizens have the right to take still or video images of police officers operating in public while on-duty. The case was brought before the court by a Dallas-Fort Worth area activist who was detained by police while filming a Fort Worth police department facility. While the court did not conclude that the activist’s detention was inherently unlawful, as officers had reasonable cause to ensure he was not planning to commit violent or criminal acts against the department or its personnel, they held that, in light of his case, the First Amendment shields citizens’ right to record police activity.

In elaborating on their ruling to extend First Amendment, the court noted that prior to the case, it was established neither under their jurisdiction nor at the Supreme Court level that citizens inherently have the right to film law enforcement under the First Amendment. Rather, they wrote, although there is a precedent of such protections under the First Amendment set by other circuit courts, it is the purview of each respective jurisdiction to establish the right to record law enforcement as stemming from the First Amendment. In appeals circuits where similar decisions have not been handed down, this could potentially leave the door open to state legislatures passing measures which prohibit this, though it would undoubtedly invite appeal with several jurisdictions having ruled against such restrictions. Until the Supreme Court issues a ruling of their own, though, the possibility of such legislation, however remote, is not out of the question.

Still, the recent opinion by the 5th Circuit is heartening to advocates of police accountability and First Amendment freedoms more broadly, and it only goes that much further in cementing the right to document the actions of public servants.

You can read the full Ars Technica article on the court’s ruling here