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A new state law in Arizona will soon make it illegal for people to film a police officer from 8 feet or closer without the officer’s permission, placing greater limits on how people can video police officers at a time when calls are growing louder for increased law enforcement transparency.
“I’m pleased that a very reasonable law that promotes the safety of police officers and those involved in police stops and bystanders has been signed into law,” Republican state Rep. John Kavanagh, the bill’s sponsor, told the Associated Press Friday. “It promotes everybody’s safety yet still allows people to reasonably videotape police activity as is their right.”
As part of the law, an officer can also stop someone from filming on private property, even if the person has the owner’s consent. The law makes exceptions for people who are the direct subject of a police interaction. Those people are allowed to film as long as they are not being searched or arrested.
The penalty for breaking this law is a misdemeanor that would likely result in a fine without jail time.
Critics of the law contend that filming police is an American right upheld by the federal appellate courts and the First Amendment of the Constitution. “A blanket restriction is a violation of the First Amendment,” Stephen Solomon, a constitutional expert and director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, told the Washington Post.
More than 60% of Americans — including residents of Arizona — live in states where federal appeals courts have recognized a First Amendment right to record police officers as of 2019, according to a citizen’s guide to recording police from NYU’s First Amendment Watch. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has not ruled on the issue.
In February, 26 media groups, including the AP, were signatories to a letter from the National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA, in opposition to the bill.
“We are extremely concerned that this language violates not only the free speech and press clauses of the First Amendment, but also runs counter to the ‘clearly established right’ to photograph and record police officers performing their official duties in a public place, cited by all the odd-numbered U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, including the Ninth Circuit,” the letter read.
“While such rights are not absolute and subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, we believe that requiring the ‘permission of a law enforcement officer’ ... would not survive a constitutional challenge and is completely unworkable in situations (such as demonstrations and protests) where there are multiple officers and people recording.”
Video captured on cellphones has significantly affected policing in the last few years, especially after the the 2020 police murder of George Floyd. In that instance, police initially said Floyd died “after a medical incident during police interaction,” but cellphone video captured by a teenage bystander proved this wasn’t true. Floyd was murdered after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck and back for more than nine minutes.
More recent video capturing an arrest on Saturday in Fairfax, Va., appeared to show two officers pointing their guns at a man filming the arrest of another person. Critics online have slammed the officers for overreacting and possibly escalating an already tense situation. However, in a statement to Yahoo News, Fairfax police said a group of juveniles had threatened a hostess, allegedly brandishing a weapon. Police were able to arrest two of the juveniles when they said a third “approached with something in his hands” and given the nature of the arrest, police drew their guns until they realized it was a cellphone. No guns were found on the juveniles and they were reportedly released to their parents.
As support grows for Arizona’s law, civil rights advocates are wary that it will have a chilling effect on people wanting to film encounters at all.
Others question how the law will be enforced, particularly if the officer moves closer to the person filming.
“It might deter them from actually recording or might make them back up even further than the eight feet that the law requires,” Alan Chen, a law professor at the University of Denver, told the New York Times. “There’s certainly some First Amendment concerns here.”
The law goes into effect Sept. 24.
Cover thumbnail photo: John Moore/Getty Images