Recording Video in Public Isn’t a Crime

Gizmodo reported early this morning on an incident in San Diego, California, where police officers attacked and arrested a man for recording them—in public—with a cell phone. A police officer stopped Adam Pringle on the boardwalk because he was smoking in a prohibited area, and Pringle decided to record the interaction. He was well within his rights to do so—don’t forget that police officers often record everything too, both to gather evidence and to protect themselves from false accusations. Law enforcement officers don’t have a special ‘I can record things and you can’t’ authority.

Courts across the country have repeatedly ruled that citizens have the right to take photos and record video in public, including when they interact with law enforcement officials. Some have even characterized the right to record police activity in public as falling under the First Amendment’s free press clause (an interpretation I happen to agree with). And yet, many police officers haven’t gotten the memo. Search YouTube and you can find countless videos of police officers illegally ordering people to stop filming, and becoming indignant and even violent when citizens choose to disregard that order and continue exercising their rights.

In this case, the officer ordered Pringle to stop filming and to put his cell phone away. Pringle told the officer that he was within his rights to film in public, and then the officer bizarrely attempted to claim that the cell phone could be used as a weapon. When Pringle still continued filming, the officer knocked the phone out of his hand (at which point the video stops) and another officer threw him to the ground, injuring his chin. Pringle was then carted off to jail to spend the night behind bars . . . for having committed no crime but the initial minor smoking charge.

I have a lot of respect for public safety and law enforcement officers, generally speaking, but I am very troubled by these incidents. Too many officers seem to think that they should be above the law and immune from photography or video in public. Like too many other public officials, they seem to forget that they are agents of the state. They work for us. In a free republic, everybody has the right to monitor the activities of agents of the state. Public officials must be subject to public scrutiny. We have the right to watch the watchers.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.