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Right to Record: Little Rock Case Affirms Need for Protecting Citizens’ Rights

Updated: Apr 13

On October 29 in Little Rock, a disagreement between an off-duty cop and a civilian at the upscale Ferneau restaurant erupted into a full-scale brawl—and a few days later, a lawsuit. The victim alleges police brutality. Nobody who wasn’t at the restaurant could have any idea what actually happened—except that a spectator videotaped the incident. The victim’s attorney released the video, seen at the top of this post, on YouTube.

The video tells us something, but it certainly doesn’t tell us everything: we can’t know whether we’re seeing a policeman use reasonable force—or going too far.

The fact is that even a video camera may not capture the whole story. The video gives us one perspective and some information, but it certainly won’t tell us what happened before filming started. Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words, but some incidents take more than a thousand words to explain (check out the weirdly compelling comments section at the Arkansas Times post on this affair, which contains a multitude of Rashomon-like multiple perspectives).

However, one thing this incident underscores is the immense importance of protecting citizens who record law enforcement actions in public. Regrettably, we are seeing a nationwide wave of arrests of citizens for doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights. As smartphones with cameras become cheaper and more pervasive, this issue will only grow more pressing.

Consider just a few recent examples:

  1. Three days ago, Wisconsin activists were arrested for the crime of recording  legislative debate in their state Capitol.

  2. Last week in Florida, deputies arrested a man when they discovered he was using his iPhone to record his detention.

  3. Two days before that, an Alabama policeman who was directing traffic became so upset when he spotted someone photographing him that he walked across the street to push the camera away.

  4. It happens in Arkansas, too: journalist Bill Lawson was arrested four years ago for trying to photograph a Maumelle house fire, but was doing it in a way that a law enforcement officer on the scene didn’t like.

Events like these place citizens in the uncomfortable position of having to sue the cops in order to protect their constitutional rights.

It is all too reminiscent of the situation earlier this year in which the Fulton County Quorum Court decided to prohibit filming of their public meetings and in which county Sheriff Buck Foley actually pushed the camera away in the middle of recording. It is a situation in which government agents, whose first official act is to swear obedience to the Constitution, clearly think of that swearing as a formality and the First Amendment as a bunch of abstract words without any relevance to their job duties.

This problem won’t be solved until legislatures decide to penalize government agents who block people from photography in any context where the photographer has a right to be.

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