Posted on April 15, 2015 by Khyla D. Craine, NAACP Assistant General Counsel
The question about our right to film and take pictures of police officers in the line of duty has resurfaced in the aftermath of the Walter Scott’s killing in North Charleston, South Carolina. The answer according to multiple courts across the country is yes. Federal Courts have continuously held that the First Amendment protects our right to take pictures and/or digitally record police officers engaging in their official duties. See Smith v. Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332, 1333 (11th Cir. 2000); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436, 439 (9th Cir. 1995); and Robinson v. Fetterman, 378 F. Supp. 2d 534, 542 (E.D. Pa. 2005). As with all protected speech, the government can place reasonable restrictions on this right, but cannot ban the right entirely—or arrest a person who complies with the restrictions, if any exist in the first place.
If you are in a public space—such as on the sidewalks, streets and locations of public protests— or any other place where you have the legal right to be, including the common areas of private businesses, then you have the right to film and/or take pictures of the incident. This right is limited in so far as you are not interfering with the officer performing their duties or placing the officer or public in danger. (You should check your local police or governmental rules for their policy, if one exists).
More importantly, the officer and/or the government at large, does not have the right to threaten, harass, or otherwise prevent you from exercising this right. If a reasonable request to leave the area due to a potential harm is made by the officer, you should comply in manner that would eliminate the threat. Your right to film/record an officer does not allow you to break the law in an effort to capture the images—including, for example, trespassing on another’s property.
We have an incredible power in the palm of our hands to help hold all of our public officials accountable, including the police.