What The Law Says About Filming The Police In Public

In 2017, United States citizens won a major battle over the right to film the police in public. Federal appeals courts that covered half of our nation’s states ruled that recording encounters with law enforcement is an American’s First Amendment right.

A Philadelphia federal appeals court ruled that Americans have the constitutional right to videotape on-duty officers while they are in public. The decision from the 3-judge panel is not groundbreaking, but it does create a milestone that citizens and attorneys find significant.

Half of the country’s states now must abide by rulings that protect video recording of law enforcement in public. The decision in Fields vs. City of Philadelphia was made by a Third Circuit Court of Appeals panel that said First Amendment protections apply to 2 individuals who used smartphones to film interactions between police and a third party.


Words from the Majority

Judge Thomas Ambro wrote for the majority, stating that while we ask much of our police – including that they be our “shelter from the storm” – we also must hold them accountable to their jobs as public officials performing public functions. He continued that the First Amendment requires they bear the recording of their actions by bystanders.


This is critical, Judge Ambro said, for promoting free discussion of the actions of government, especially when discussions benefit officers as well as citizens. The decision from the judges punctuates a growing federal appeals court consensus on the issue. Beginning in 2011, the First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits of appeals have issued rulings that are similar. These actions were taken into account to protect bystanders who record on-duty police.


The jurisdictions that allow recording of the police represent about 60 percent of the U.S. population. There have been no federal appeals courts that have presented contrary rulings. The United States Supreme Court has not ruled on the subject.


Social Media May be Fueling the Rising Discussion of Videotaping Police

In recent years, videotaping the police has become a more prominent action and the topic of much discussion because of various film clips coming to light that show police encounters with black women and men. These types of videos circulate quickly on social media, and they give the subject matter a higher profile with every story that hits the news.


Several of these highly circulated videos helped give rise to the Black Lives Matter Movement and spurred a national debate over police reform. Many feel that video recording the police is a citizen’s civic duty, mostly because it has the potential to expose wrongdoings.

The Philadelphia Ruling

The 2 plaintiffs who were the subject of the Philadelphia ruling brought lawsuits that ended up in the Third Circuit after a long battle to protect what they say is their right. One of the pair was a member of a local watchdog group, and she filmed officers as they arrested anti-fracking protesters in 2012.


If you’re interested in learning more about bystander videos, dashboard camera footage, and other films and how they relate to civil rights, consider a CLE course on the subject. This topic is one that is likely not going anywhere, so it can provide education that is absolutely useful in today’s world.