First Circuit Appeals Court Reaffirms Its 2011 Decision: The First Amendment Protects The Recording Of Cops – Techdirt

Posted: December 30, 2020 at 5:13 pm

from the double-tapping-Glik dept

More than a decade ago, Simon Glik was arrested by Boston police officers for the "crime" of recording them in public. This was made possible by a law passed in the mid-60s, which turned Massachusetts into a "two-party" recording state. Unless the person doing the recording has the consent of the person being recorded, it's a violation of the state's wiretap law.

Glik successfully challenged this law, securing an Appeals Court ruling that stated the law was unconstitutional as applied to the recording of police officers in public places. This didn't immediately end the bogus arrests. Five years later, the government was taken to court again for enforcing this law in a way the Appeals Court said it couldn't. Also along for the ride was James O'Keefe's "Project Veritas," which argued the law was unconstitutional when applied to any public official in nearly any setting.

The federal court said the Glik decision applied to the recording of police officers, whether surreptitious or not. It pointed out the Boston Police Department had issued new guidance based on the Glik decision, but falsely portrayed acceptable recordings as limited to those cops knew were happening. Not so, said the court. Even surreptitious recordings of cops in public spaces are protected by the First Amendment. It didn't come to the same conclusion about Project Veritas' arguments, finding the law was not overbroad when it applied some minimal restrictions to recording public officials.

The Commonwealth still wants to abuse its bad law. It appealed this decision, sending it to the same court that had found its application of the law to the recording of cops unconstitutional nearly a decade ago. The First Circuit Court of Appeals says [PDF] the government's arguments are no better nine years later. Surreptitious recordings of police officers performing their public duties does not interfere with their work. Citizens are under no obligation to tell police officers they're being recorded. The government's interpretation of the law would just provide cover for misconduct.

Because the recording here will not be done in plain sight or with the actual knowledge of the officers whose words will be recorded, they will not even be aware that such recording is occurring. For that reason, they will not be on specific notice of a need to take precautions to ensure that words that they do not wish to have recorded are not. But, insofar as the mere prospect of being recorded leads officers to feel the need to refrain from uttering words or engaging in actions that would constitute misconduct, it hardly interferes with their capacity to perform their official duties.

Citizens deserve transparency and accountability. And if law enforcement agencies aren't willing to provide that on their own, citizens have the Constitutional right to gather information about police activities.

Accordingly, we conclude that the statute's outright ban on such secret recording is not narrowly tailored to further the government's important interest in preventing interference with police doing their jobs and thereby protecting the public. [...]

Rather, despite a record that does little to show how secret, nonconsensual audio recording of police officers doing their jobs in public interferes with their mission, Section 99 broadly prohibits such recording, notwithstanding the myriad circumstances in which it may play a critical role in informing the public about how the police are conducting themselves, whether by documenting their heroism, dispelling claims of their misconduct, or facilitating the public's ability to hold them to account for their wrongdoing.

The Commonwealth also raised the argument that people interacting with police might be recorded without their consent. Again, the court points out there's minimal expectation of privacy in conversations with cops in public areas. While some citizens may not want to be recorded, talking to officers in the earshot of other members of the public is hardly a private conversation. And the precedent cited by the DA is completely off base.

In pressing this point, the District Attorney contends that special attention must be paid to the fact that "when a recording is made surreptitiously, the person being recorded unwittingly becomes a captive." She supports this argument by invoking the Supreme Court's captive-audience cases.


But, the captive-audience line of authority concerns restrictions on expression that the government may impose to protect persons from being subjected to speech they wish to avoid. The risk of being subjected to unwanted speech, of course, is not a concern here. Moreover, the only individuals who will be recorded by the Martin Plaintiffs are those in public spaces who are within earshot of police officers and choose to speak. Thus, we do not see how -- across the board -- the proposed secret recording results in "substantial privacy interests . . . being invaded in an essentially intolerable manner."

Project Veritas' case, however, fails to move the court. Veritas wanted the law invalidated in its entirety, claiming it deterred it from recording public officials and those interacting with public officials without limitation. But the examples it provided of speech is was being "deterred" from engaging in was far more limited than the relief it sought.

Project Veritas alleged in connection with this challenge that it seeks to record "government officials who are discharging their duties at or around the State House in Boston and other public spaces" in hopes of learning those officials' unvarnished thoughts about "immigration policy and deportation"; "to capture whether antifa public events and protests are peaceful, whether police or other public officials interactions with antifa members are non-violent," and to otherwise report on those events; and that its "journalists would have attended" "a large public event" related to "the ongoing PVA 'antifa' investigation" but for Section 99.

Thus, Project Veritas gives no indication that it intends to investigate any and every type of civil servant, no matter their function or place in the governmental hierarchy. But, if we take Project Veritas at its word and construe the term "government officials" as broadly as "officials and civil servants," that category covers everyone from an elected official to a public school teacher to a city park maintenance worker.

The court says it's not willing to completely upend the law when narrower reading might both serve the First Amendment and the state's governmental interests. This plaintiff asks the court to consider all recordings equal. The court says that's not realistic.

The concern that this disconnect renders this dispute hypothetical and abstract rather than real and concrete is compounded by the fact that the First Amendment analysis might be appreciably affected by the type of government official who would be recorded. It is hardly clear that a restriction on the recording of a mayor's speech in a public park gives rise to the same First Amendment concerns as a restriction on the recording of a grammar school teacher interacting with her students in that same locale while on a field trip or public works employees conversing while tending to a city park's grounds.

Veritas' case will go back to the court for some additional exploration -- but only if, given a third chance to write a complaint, the activist group actually finds something worthy of discussion by the court. But the ruling here is clear: recording cops in Massachusetts isn't a crime, no matter how much Massachusetts wishes it would be.

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Filed Under: 1st amendment, 1st circuit, civil rights, free speech, massachusetts, recording police, simon glik

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