Will Rodney King-style Video Be Illegal Someday?

Reason’s Jesse Walker has an interview with human rights activist Sam Gregory about the use of video to expose abuses. In Rodney King’s Children, Walker writes,

Over the last few years, a brave group of Arab activists has circulated footage of Egyptian cops striking, lashing, and even raping detainees. The torture videos, which had been filmed by the policemen themselves, prompted protests both inside and outside the country. They also prompted censorship: YouTube temporarily shut down the dissident blogger Wael Abbas’ digital video channel after the company received complaints about the violent clips.
. . .

The site was created by Witness, a Brooklyn-based group founded by the pop star Peter Gabriel in 1992. Conceived in the wake of the Rodney King beating, the group first focused on getting cameras into the hands of human rights groups around the world and then on training them in the most effective ways to use those tools—creating, in Gabriel’s phrase, a network of “Little Brothers and Little Sisters” to keep an eye on Big Brother’s agents. Now Witness wants to move that community of camera-wielding activists online.

The odd thing is that while the King video was the impetus for this, in the United States some states are enacting laws that effectively make videotaping even of police in public places illegal.

Take Commonwealth v. Hyde. A man surreptitously recorded a traffic stop where he believed police acted inappropriate. He then took the video in with him to a police station to file a misconduct complaint. Instead of acting on his complaint, police arrested the man and he was charged with violating Massachusett’s wiretapping laws. Not only was he convicted, but the Massachusetts’ State Supreme Court upheld the conviction. Massachusetts’ laws is so absurd that the court specifically cited the hypothetical audiotaping of a ransom demand from kidnappers as an example of illegal wiretapping under state law.

New Hampshire and Pennsylvania have similar statutes that typically require consent from both the person doing the taping and the person being taped, even when the taping takes place in a public place. People in both states have been prosecuted for taping police carrying out their official duties in public.

There should always be an affirmative right to videotape public officials carrying out their official duties in public, and single person consent for private places. There are dozens of instances where the video/audio taping of police has been the only evidence of official misconduct. Sweeping such misconduct under the rug through onerous wiretapping statutes puts us on the same path as Egyptian authorities, willing to turn a blind eye to corruption and abuse.

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