The Right to Film the Police

By Rachel Healy

healyTaking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right — and that includes recording police and other government officials as they carry out their duties.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs or recording video from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply.

Hopefully, the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Maine on behalf of a Bar Harbor, Maine, couple who were arrested after attempting to observe and film a police interaction in Portland will help put an end to that pattern.

The plaintiffs in the case, Jill Walker and Sabatino Scattoloni, were visiting Portland on May 25, 2014, when they observed an encounter between five police officers and one woman. Walker and Scattoloni decided to film the incident from across the street, and they subsequently moved closer to observe the police activities. Officer Benjamin Noyes ordered the two to get off the sidewalk or face arrest. When Walker and Scattoloni asked why they would be arrested, Officer Noyes immediately ordered two other officers to arrest the couple.

Walker and Scattoloni were searched and interrogated without Miranda warnings and incarcerated until they could meet bail. They were charged with “Obstructing Government Administration” and obligated to hire a defense attorney. Ultimately, the district attorney dropped the charges.

Their subsequent lawsuit charged that observing and recording the police performing their work in public is protected under the First Amendment, and that the actions of Officer Noyes violated that right.

The terms of settlement in this case involve payment to both Walker and Scattoloni. Additionally, the Portland Police Department has agreed to use the incident to train its officers on respecting the rights of members of the public, including their First Amendment rights.

While police officers may not like being recorded, personal recordings are an important check on potential abuses. We are hopeful that the settlement of this case will lead police departments across Maine to train their officers to respect that right. As Jill Walker said following the settlement:

“We decided to bring this case in order to help make it clear that you have the right to observe and record the police, as long as you aren’t interfering with their work. We hope that nobody else will have to go through what we went through.”

Rachel is the director of communications and public education at the ACLU of Maine.

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