• First Amendment Extended by Court Ruling •
The First Circuit Court of Appeals late last month handed down a ruling that further extends the First Amendment to citizens and defends their right to document public officials—including law enforcement personnel—performing their duties in public.
The court describes a citizen's right to record government officials, including police officers and sheriff's deputies, in the discharge of their duties in a public place, as a vital and well-established liberty. The court ruled, "Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest."
The ruling has tremendous importance for the changing nature of journalism by stating that it is not only those with press credentials who can gather and distribute news and that even government attempts at limiting credentialed press should not be allowed.
The court acknowledged that changes in technology and society have blurred the lines between private citizen and accredited journalist, which may irk some in the media, but accurately reflects the reality of today's news-gathering process.
The justices' ruling noted, "The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders with a ready cell phone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew, and news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at a computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status."
Critical to the court's thinking is "the First Amendment right to gather news is, as the Court has often noted, not one that inures solely to the benefit of the news media; rather, the public's right of access to information is coextensive with that of the press." The court sees the First Amendment as the means for dissemination of information and encouragement of the gathering of information by public as well as press in order to lead to free and open discussion of government.
Public agencies, especially law enforcement organizations, are expected to consider challenging the ruling, or to seek a contrary ruling in another federal appellate court. Either way, there is a possibility that this case, or a case of a similar nature in another circuit, will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Once it becomes widely known that this groundbreaking precedent has been set, individuals with cameras will feel free to document law enforcement activity and endeavor to disseminate that documentation in the traditional media or on the Web.
The ruling may even have implications for at least one pending Malibu court case.
The recent decision from the First Circuit Court of Appeals is another major effort to ensure transparency in all things public and to prevent the abuse of power in any segment of public life.