If one Texas lawmaker gets his way, it will be a misdemeanor for residents of the Lone Star State to point a camera at a police officer from a distance of 25 or fewer feet.
Republicans state Rep. Jason Villalbla told reporters last week that his measure, H.B. 2918, is aimed at keeping officers safe as they conduct their daily duties. But critics say the measure stinks of an effort to hinder citizen journalists who have increasingly focused their efforts on holding police officers accountable.
Brett Sanders, a Texas-based correspondent for the blog Photography Is Not A Crime (PINAC), said the proposal reveals multiple levels of government corruption in a recent blog post.
“[A]t a time when police are becoming more militarized and more aggressive, it’s not surprising that corrupt politicians want to hide the immoral behavior of their hired guns,” he wrote. “I mean, to quote one of the governments favorite lines, ‘if they have nothing to hide, they should have nothing to fear,’ right?”
And the language in Villalbla’s legislation does little to negate the critical response from independent bloggers. For example, the bill would allow qualified “news media” personnel to record police actions from as little a distance as 10 feet — but it makes no such exception for online media outlets.
The legislation defines “approved media” thusly:
(A) a radio or television station that holds a license issued by the Federal Communications Commission;
(B) a newspaper that is qualified under Section 2051.044, Government Code, to publish legal notices or is a free newspaper of general circulation and that is published at least once a week and available and of interest to the general public in connection with the dissemination of news or public affairs; or
(C) a magazine that appears at a regular interval, that contains stories, articles, and essays by various writers, and that is available and of interest to the general public in connection with the dissemination of news or public affairs.
For activists like Sanders, that’s a major problem.
PINAC, which encourages all Americans to film and photograph the police whenever possible, contends that the measure would essentially allow mainstream media outlets to act as PR agents for local police.
“At a time when much of the corporate media is becoming further consolidated, turning the so-called Fourth Estate into a conglomerate of the government, the only entity left to ensure government transparency is the newly emerged Fifth Estate, which are not only sites like PINAC, but any member of the public who wields a camera and uses social media as a publishing platform,” the organization said on its website.
The scope of Villalbla’s proposed assault on Texans’ constitutional rights is widened by another provision in the bill which makes filming the police at a distance of less than 100 feet a crime for anyone carrying a firearm.
From the bill:
(1) filming, recording, photographing, or documenting the officer within 25 feet of the officer; or
(2) filming, recording, photographing, or documenting the officer within 100 feet of the officer while carrying a handgun under the authority of Subchapter H, Chapter 411, Government Code.
(g) It is a defense to prosecution for an offense under Subsection (a)(1) based on conduct described by Subsection (f)(2) that the interruption, disruption, impediment, or interference was caused by a person who, at the time of the offense, was:
(1) a news media employee acting in the course and scope of the person’s employment; or
(2) employed by or working with an organization or entity engaged in law enforcement activities.
That measure would put an end to an increasingly popular form of open carry activism wherein citizens film encounters with pedestrians and often with police officers responding to reports of guns in public as they assert their firearm rights.
Hundreds of such videos from around the nation can be found on YouTube. And too often they portray officers overreacting to a completely legal activity.
While unpopular with activists, Villalbla’s proposal does have the support of Texas police organizations.
The Associated Press reported last week: “Frederick Frazier, the first vice president of the Dallas Police Association, said he and others asked Villalba to file the bill after tense encounters between police and people with cameras in Tarrant County, Houston and Dallas.”
Frazier told the AP that “somebody is going to get killed” if citizen journalists and activists continue filming officers — or, as he put it, “trying to pick a fight with their camera.”
What the Texas lawmaker doesn’t have going for him (aside from the 1st Amendment) is legal precedent. Several high-profile cases over the years have reaffirmed the right of Americans to film police activities, including the 2011 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in Glik v. Cunniffe.
In that case, Boston resident Simon Glik was arrested in 2007 and charged with illegal wiretapping, along with disturbing the peace and aiding in the escape of a prisoner for filming an arrest. He was eventually cleared of all charges and awarded damages.
But more importantly, the case reaffirmed the right of Americans to exercise their 1st Amendment rights with cellphone cameras.
“[A] private citizen has the right to record video and audio of public officials in a public place,” the Glik appeal determined.