You Have the Right to Videotape

Last month a federal judge awarded $35,000 in compensatory and $6000 in punitive damages to a man state troopers arrested for video taping them while they were performing what he believed to be unsafe truck inspections.

Given the Utah rave case and the Oakland police stop reported today, this decision matters because it defines citizens’ rights to video law enforcement in action.

The ruling finds violations of the plaintiff’s first and fourth amendment rights. It states “The activities of the police, like those of other public officials, are subject to public scrutiny…Videotaping is a legitimate means of gathering information for public dissemination…there can be no doubt that the free speech clause of the Constitution protected Robinson as he videotaped the defendants…Moreover, to the extent that the troopers were restraining Robinson from making any future videotapes and from publicizing or publishing what he had filmed, the defendants’ conduct clearly amounted to an unlawful prior restraint upon his protected speech….We find that defendants are liable under § 1983 for violating Robinson’s Fourth Amendment right to be protected from an unlawful seizure…”

The local paper concluded in its report “All this case proved is that troopers doing a public job can be videotaped.”

But that is a big deal. This case was pointed out to me by the folks at Witness, an organization that must surely rank among the most inspiring and important of all of the world’s moving image archives.

One thought on “You Have the Right to Videotape”

  1. I am a returning student at Santa Monica College who has been investigating ongoing misconduct by the SMC police department and the advisors within the Office of Student Life. During this school year I have monitored (often by videotape) campus governmental meetings, conducted interviews, gathered data and reported more and more of it on my website, The Siege –

    On a recent Thursday morning, May 18, I started videotaping (footage on my website) a “spoken word” event sponsored by our student government and performed in a public area (the Clocktower) on campus. After disagreements with the initial performers (who turned out to be paid and didn’t want to be filmed) regarding whether I could tape them, SMC officer Malone arrived and ordered me to cease videotaping, or be arrested. I complied. But when I sought clarification as to 1) what law or regulation he was enforcing, and 2) why I couldn’t tape students who wanted to be taped, he was unresponsive.

    So I began to videotape my dialogue with him and the two other officers (Champagne and Hearn) who arrived to back him up shortly thereafter. At no time was I given any clear explanation (other than “those are the rules”) of the grounds upon which they issued their order. When I continued to inquire about their admonition, I was further threatened that I needed to cease both “interviewing” and videotaping them. During moments when the officers were certain my camera was not operating, they uttered profanities and other insults at me. I was repeatedly threatened with arrest if I were to violate their order to not videotape the event, despite my continued compliance with the order.

    When a friend and student, Gaily Ezer, approached them to show her copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and point out they might be in violation of it – as I continued to videotape – Malone ultimately became threatening and unresponsive to her.

    Since the date of the event, a police incident report has been written and given (May 23) to the campus disciplinarian, Judith Penchansky, from which she states it declares I was “disruptive, argumentative, and rude,” and thus potentially in violation of the Code of Student Conduct. She is requiring me to meet with her to discuss that day’s events. On May 24, SMCPD told me when I visited their office that it would take up to 10 business days for me to receive a copy of the incident report. Penchansky’s office has it, but I can’t get a copy from anyone for up to 10 business days. I informed her that I would not meet with her until I see a copy of that report.

    As a student, I have written for the school newspaper, where I was honored last spring by the editors as “most valuable writer.” I publish my newly-born online news magazine with the goal of having it evolve into an open forum for the dialogue so badly needed across constituencies at the school. The administration, campus police and those whose conduct has been exposed are increasingly unhappy about it.

    It should also be known that I have been on the receiving end of two incidents of battery at the school since last June, on which I insisted that officers arrest the batterers, but to no avail, despite evidence on both occasions supporting my allegations. The second battery incident resulted in my filing of a formal complaint against the officers (Trump and Echeverria) who mishandled the call in late October. It took over one month (early December) before anyone sought to interview me. The officers wrote conflicting police reports, in addition to lying that I didn’t want the perpetrator arrested. I still have not heard any final resolution.

    Three weeks preceding the recent May 18 episode (on April 29), I was at the epicenter of additional police misconduct when SMC officers arrived at the school newspaper where I was visiting Aaron Howell, online editor (He was editor in chief during the fall.), at his invitation. Officer Hearn arrived first (after I had been there about 10 minutes) and demanded to know from me, “Are you supposed to be here?” When I tried to explain by referring to Howell, Hearn commanded me to look at him when I was talking. As I tried to explain that if he would stop interrupting, he would hear an answer to his question, Officer Malone arrived and immediately demanded that we produce our identification. When Howell took exception to the hostility of the officers, Malone declared “you can speak when I tell you to.” Howell responded with “This is fucked.” Malone quickly walked around me and moved nose-to-nose with Howell and proceeded to verbally browbeat him. A few moments later, after I had been ordered out of the office (I immediately exited to just outside the open door), Malone continued his verbal abuse of Howell. Blocking Howell’s exit (which Malone has also ordered), Howell responded to Malone’s rising verbal abuse by calling him a “motherfucker.” Malone lunged at Howell, threw him against the counter, and handcuffed him. I suggested to Howell to not resist and fully cooperate. Hearn ordered me to leave the building. I immediately complied. Howell was suspended from school pending a meeting with Judith Penchansky, the campus disciplinarian.

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