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Friday, January 21, 2022

SCOTUS lets stand First Amendment protection of citizen newsgathering via secret recording of police

Pixabay by Bruce Emmerling
Denying review in November 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand court decisions declaring the Massachusetts wiretap statute unconstitutional as applied to recording police in public places.

I wrote about the original U.S. District Court decision here at The Savory Tort in 2019.  As I commented then, the decision and others like it in the federal courts have broader implications for the First Amendment and the right of access to information.  Historically, American courts have been reluctant to locate access rights in the negative command that Congress make no law abridging the freedom of speech.

But developments in media technology have dimmed the once bright line between information acquisition and expression.  In an age in which one can retweet scarce moments after reading a tweet, government regulation of receipt seems to impinge intolerably on transmission.  Layer on as well a realpolitik of demand for accountability in law enforcement, and the mechanical application of a wiretap prohibition to a smartphone recording of police conduct, or misconduct, becomes indefensible.

Accordingly, civil liberties advocates applauded the district court holding "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."  Bipartisan claimants in the case included Boston-based civil rights activists K. Eric Martin and RenĂ© Perez, supported by the ACLU of Massachusetts, and conservative activist James O'Keefe and his Project Veritas Action Fund.

In December 2020, the First Circuit mostly affirmed.  U.S. Circuit Judge David J. Barron observed for a unanimous panel that also comprised retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, sitting by designation, and Senior Judge and Rhode Islander Bruce M. Selya, "Massachusetts makes it as much a crime for a civic-minded observer to use a smartphone to record from a safe distance what is said during a police officer's mistreatment of a civilian in a city park as it is for a revenge-seeker to hide a tape recorder under the table at a private home to capture a conversation with an ex-spouse."

The Massachusetts wiretap law, which is restrictive, requiring all-party consent, but not unique in the states, thus offended the First Amendment insofar as it "prohibit[ed] the secret, non-consensual audio recording of police officers discharging their official duties in public spaces."  In the vein of the changing media landscape and advent of citizen journalism, the First Circuit opined: "In sum, a citizen's audio recording of on-duty police officers' treatment of civilians in public spaces while carrying out their official duties, even when conducted without an officer's knowledge, can constitute newsgathering every bit as much as a credentialed reporter's after-the-fact efforts to ascertain what had transpired."

However, ruling that Project Veritas's purported fear of prospective prosecution failed to prevent a controversy ripe for adjudication, the First Circuit vacated the judgment of the district court insofar as it reached the "secret, non-consensual audio recording of government officials discharging their duties in public" (my emphasis).  That's not to say the principle of the ruling cannot extend beyond police, to other public officials, when there is legitimate public interest in accountability.  Precedent suggests such extension.  But the court was skeptical of the potential reach of an unqualified ruling: "[I]f we ... 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 First Circuit ruling thus nudges the First Amendment forward in the access arena.  Meanwhile, First Amendment problems lurk ever more menacingly in countervailing privacy law.

At the end of November 2021, Twitter announced a new privacy policy allowing any individual pictured in a tweet to demand takedown, regardless of whether the tweet contains information held private.  There are public-figure and public-interest exceptions.  But generally, images of ordinary persons in public places are imbued with a right of privacy akin to that which animates the European (and increasingly rest-of-the-world) right of personal data protection.

The balanced protection of personal privacy in public places is proving difficult to draw in European courts, which have generated rulings not always savory to the American palate.  My Google Nest Doorbell, for example, facing the public street in Rhode Island, would be problematic under European privacy law.  A private company, Twitter does not have to contend with the First Amendment.  But if the same privacy value and takedown policy were embodied in law, well, as they say in New England, a stahm is a-brewin'.

Both district and circuit courts rejected Project Veritas's facial challenge to the wiretap law.  Project Veritas filed a petition for writ of certiorari in May 2021, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied review in Project Veritas Action Fund v. Rollins, No. 20-1598, on November 22, 2021.  Hat tip to Brian Dowling at Law360Cf. Family in fatal police shooting demands transparency, The Savory Tort, Jan. 19, 2022.

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