PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today urged a panel of federal appeals judges to recognize the right to record police as they carry out their duties in public and to overturn a lower court ruling that significantly curtailed that right. The argument before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit was the latest twist in the cases of two Philadelphians who were detained by city police after they photographed them in separate incidents in 2012 and 2013.
“A democratic society demands that someone watches the watchers,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “People have a right to record the police without fear of arrest or retaliation. We hope the appeals court agrees.”
With cooperating counsel, the ACLU of Pennsylvania is representing two plaintiffs who photographed police at work and who were detained as a result. Rick Fields was arrested in September 2013, after he stopped to take a photo with his iPhone of a large number of Philadelphia police officers breaking up a house party across the street. One of the officers approached him, asked if he enjoyed “taking pictures of grown men,” and ordered him to leave. After Fields refused, he was handcuffed and detained in a police van, and his phone was searched in an apparent attempt to find the recordings he had made that evening. He was charged with “obstructing the highway,” but the charge was later withdrawn.
The other plaintiff is Amanda Geraci, a trained legal observer who was detained by police while she was attempting to monitor police interactions during an anti-fracking protest outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in September 2012. When Geraci attempted to take photos of police arresting a protestor, a police officer pushed Geraci up against a pillar and pinned Geraci across her throat. Other police officers quickly surrounded Geraci and the officer to block other legal observers from witnessing or recording the incident, although not before several photos were taken by Geraci’s fellow legal observers.
In February 2016, federal district court Judge Mark Kearney ruled that the plaintiffs do not have a First Amendment right to photograph the police unless they are doing so for the purpose of criticizing the police.
Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, argued on behalf of the plaintiffs at today’s hearing in the appeals court.
“Ordinary people have an important role to play in holding the government accountable, and the First Amendment is one of our main sources of power,” said Tack-Hooper. “Taking photos or videos of how police use their power is part of the freedom protected by the First Amendment.”
The ACLU of Pennsylvania has brought a series of five lawsuits aimed at stopping the Philadelphia Police Department’s illegal practice of retaliating against individuals who observe or record the police performing their duties. Fields and Geraci are represented by Molly Tack-Hooper and Mary Catherine Roper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; John Grogan and Peter Leckman of Langer, Grogan & Diver, P.C.; Jonathan Feinberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, & Feinberg; and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.