As reported in the New Jersey Law Journal, in the case entitled Fields v. City of Philadelphia, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently joined five other circuits in ruling that the First Amendment protects individuals’ rights to film police officers performing their official duties. The Third Circuit decision involved two civil rights suits by observers to police activity. The first involved an observer who was physically restrained from filming the arrest of an anti-fracking protestor. The second involved a university student who was arrested for trying to film police officers breaking up a house party. Each civil rights suit claimed the officers wrongfully interfered with the attempts to film.

The court unanimously agreed that each plaintiff possessed a First Amendment right to record the police and, that that right was violated in each instance.  The court was careful to say, however, that the First Amendment right to record government activity in public was subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. It pointed out that one plaintiff videographer had been recording from across the street, and the other, “without getting in the officers’ way,” and it cautioned that recording that interferes with police activity, such as recording dealings with confidential informants, might not be protected.

All law enforcement officers must be cognizant of the unbroken string of circuit decisions, now including New Jersey, that recognize the First Amendment right to record official police activity. In addition to the advent of body cameras and dashboard cameras, citizens have the right (while not absolute) to film officers and “record” their actions while acting in the line of duty.