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Monday, February 11, 2019

Court's strike against Mass. wiretap law for recording police raises bigger questions of 'right to receive,' freedom of information

The "right to receive" expression or information is the long neglected, often doubted, and sometimes maligned sibling of the freedom of expression.  While the First Amendment posits the expression of information that one possesses, the right to receive posits the acquisition of information as an essential prerequisite.  In other words, without access to information, the freedom of expression is meaningless.

By Khairil Yusof (CC BY 2.0).
More broadly conceptualized, the right to receive is an umbrella that covers a great many propositions in civil rights discourse, especially the freedom of information or access to information (FOI or ATI), and including also the right to news-gathering and "citizen journalism"; the right of access to meetings, libraries, and public facilities such as prisons; and, most recently, the right to record police.  Historically, American constitutional law widely rejected propositions in this vein, evidenced by the famously statutory U.S. Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, which nonetheless has exerted substantial influence in the advent of ATI as a constitutional and human right elsewhere in the world.

Modern information society has raised new challenges to the American constitutional rejection of a right to receive information and prompted the reexamination of right-to-receive propositions in the courts.  A new appeal has arisen in the logic that access is prerequisite to meaningful democratic engagement through the freedoms to speak, publish, assemble, and petition.  A fair piece of this reexamination has appeared in the case law surrounding the video-recording of police activity, spurred in part by news-media focus on police-involved shootings and subsequent Black Lives Matter and related protests. 

Conventional First Amendment law would have subsumed video-recording under the doctrine of no right to gather the news, thus compelling would-be recorders to obey police orders to stop upon self-serving public-safety rationales, and on pain of civil and criminal justice consequences for failure to comply.  But as electronic media technology has dissolved the distance between recording and public broadcast—the latter unquestionably constitutionally protected by the speech-core prior restraint doctrine—even American courts have been reluctant to find recording devoid of constitutional significance.

In December 2018, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held the Massachusetts wiretap statute, a "two-party consent" law (see code; Digital Media Law Project), unconstitutional--facially, though in the limited, articulated circumstances of "the secret recording of police officers performing their duties in public, and the secret recording of government officials doing the same." The court, per Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, held:

On the core constitutional issue, the Court holds that secret audio recording of government officials, including law enforcement officials, performing their duties in public is protected by the First Amendment, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. Because Section 99 [Mass. wiretap] fails intermediate scrutiny when applied to such conduct, it is unconstitutional in those circumstances.

James O'Keefe speaks at 2018 Student Action Summit, West Palm Beach,
Florida, Dec. 21, 2018. By Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0).
The ruling came upon joint consideration of two cases involving different partisan affilliations.  In one case, Boston-based civil rights activists K. Eric Martin and René Perez, supported by the ACLU of Massachusetts, sued under civil rights law to combat authorities' investigation of them for openly and secretly recording police activity in pedestrian and traffic stops and at protests.  A second case involved the conservative activist James O'Keefe and his Project Veritas Action Fund (PVA).  PVA sought to effect secret recordings, and not to be criminally prosecuted for them, in Massachusetts in a broader and intriguing list of scenarios:

  • "landlords renting unsafe apartments to college students;
  • "government officials, including police officers, legislators, or members of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, to ascertain their positions on 'sanctuary cities';
  • "'protest management' activities by both government officials and private individuals related to Antifa protests; and 
  • "interactions with Harvard University officials to research its endowment and use of federal funds."
As the court acknowledged, the First Circuit previously joined the majority trend in courts to recognize a constitutional right (subject to reasonable time-place-manner regulation) to record police in public.  Considering the extant threat of prosecution, the court found sufficient merit in plaintiffs' claims to survive ripeness review. 

C.J. Saris
The court then found that application of the law to recording public officials in their official capacity in public places could not survive First Amendment intermediate scrutiny: "narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest."  Following the First Circuit's example, the court ruled that accountability outweighed slimmer competing interests in public order and officials' personal privacy.  The court left to future cases to determine whether the rule here may be extended to recordings in private venues that are places of public accommodation, such as a restaurant, and to determine who besides police are "government officials."

The case is Martin v. Gross, No. 1:16-cv-11362-PBS (D. Mass. Dec. 10, 2018), available here from Courthouse News Service.  Hat tip to Michael Lambert at Prince Lobel and Christine Corcos at Media Law Prof Blog.

As the courts continue to struggle with right-to-receive cases, rejection of the "right" in American constitutional law becomes increasingly untenable.  A generation of rehearings on the question in the U.S. Supreme Court, and a consequent reshaping of the relevant First Amendment doctrine, seems inevitable.

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