Thanks Big Brother, You always know better

March 5, 2012

Should the police be allowed to detain you for filming them in the performance of their duties?  Should prosecutor's be allowed to get a court order requiring you remove that video from the internet?  Several cases in recent months show police getting hostile and physically aggressive against people who film them while they perform their duties in full view of the public.

Generally, Courts have said that anything done in public can be recorded by anyone watching the action.  This is why police are allowed to set up surveillance cameras anywhere the public has access.  There are exceptions - bathrooms, or other places people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, but generally if you are walking down the street the police can film you and all you do.

A pair of recent cases has shown, however, that the police have a double standard over the government's long standing justification for filming and eavesdropping on citizens when they are in public view.  In California, a man filmed the arrest of another man who was allegedly beaten and kicked by arresting officers for no apparent reason other than he was being mouthy.  The video was uploaded to the internet, and after the filing of charges, the Sonoma County Prosecutor asked a judge to order the removal of the video from the internet for fear that potential jurors who watch the video will become biased against the police officers. 

The second video showing police arresting someone for videotaping them comes from our very own Austin, Texas.  In that case, a war veteran saw what he believed was police misconduct in the arrest of a woman.  He pulled out his cell phone and began videotaping the encounter.  The police ordered him to stop.  When he informed them of his right to take video in public, they arrested him.

Our society is reaching a decision point.  Are we truly a free society, or does the government get to control what we see, think, and do?  Champions of freedom often blog about how the internet is useful in keeping governments accountable for their actions.  Anyone can post or comment on perceived or actual government abuse, waste or fraud.  In this way, the bloggers of today are the pamphleteers of the 1700's.  They record what they see and put it out there for the rest of us to watch, read, or listen and leave it up to us to make our own decisions about our observations.

When the government controls when and what we record in public, then they control the flow of information.  When they control the flow of information, they control how accountable they are to us.  As an attorney I find this Prosecutor's argument offensive.  Police release videos all the time showing the arrest of suspects.  They justify it in the name of "public disclosure," "open records," or the "public's right to know."  If any of those justifications are acceptable when police and prosecutors release information then they should be acceptable when citizens release information.

Big Brother government is scary to people who believe in their right to make independent decisions about how to live their lives.  Big Brother government will tell you that you are smaller than them, they know better than you, and their judgment on what is good for you is better than your own judgment.  Do these cases from different parts of the country indicate that the government wants to be our Big Brother instead of our servant?  Tell us what you think.  Should the government be able to tell you that you cannot record in public areas when they can?  Should they be able to stop you from posting videos of their abuse, mistreatment, and civil rights violations to the internet?