Update 11/21/14: It's been more than three months since Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, and tension with police still presents a troubling reality for the residents of Ferguson, Missouri. As officer Wilson is widely expected to dodge a grand jury indictment for the killing, the state has mobilized police in anticipation of unrest. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon even took the controversial step of declaring a state of emergency in advance of the decision. The government's heavy-handed approach to controlling lawful protest appears not to have changed since St. Louis County Police donned body armor and aimed assault weapons at peaceful residents — but the rights of people in Ferguson haven't changed, either. Here's our original story in response to the troubling actions of police in Missouri immediately following Brown's death: you have a right to record the police.
A suburb of St. Louis, Missouri has been under a dramatic siege since Saturday, when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. In the wake of the killing, protests have engulfed the community — drawing a heavy-handed police crackdown with St. Louis County Police officers armed with assault weapons and outfitted with military equipment. Many of the striking images have come from reporters on the front lines, but also from citizens and their smartphones.
Around 10PM ET on Wednesday night, a St. Louis County Police line demanded that a crowd of protesters turn off their cameras. Minutes earlier, the police had ordered what appeared to be a peaceful crowd to disperse, firing smoke grenades and rubber bullets. But none of them have to turn their cameras off.
St. Louis County Police should read the constitution
Here's the deal: as a resident of the US, you have the right to record the police in the course of their public duties. The police don't have a right to stop you as long as you're not interfering with their work. They also don't have a right to confiscate your phone or camera, or delete its contents, just because you were recording them.
Despite some state laws that make it illegal to record others without their consent, federal courts have held consistently that citizens have a First Amendment right to record the police as they perform their official duties in public. The Supreme Court also recently affirmed that the Fourth Amendment, protecting citizens from arbitrary searches and seizures, means that cops need to "get a warrant" if they want to take your cellphone. (The ACLU has a concise guide to your rights, here.) And the US Department of Justice under Obama has affirmed the court's stances by reminding police departments that they're not allowed to harass citizens for recording them.
Sadly these rights are not always respected by the police. Even journalists are being harassed in Ferguson in the course of their reporting. Earlier this evening, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowrey and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly were arrested in a McDonalds and later released with no explanation. Washington Post executive editor Martin D. Baron said Lowrey was "illegally instructed to stop taking video of officers," and then "slammed against a soda machine and then handcuffed."
Officers decided we weren't leaving McDonalds quickly enough, shouldn't have been taping them.— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) August 14, 2014
Apparently, in America, in 2014, police can manhandle you, take you into custody, put you in cell & then open the door like it didn't happen— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) August 14, 2014
It's obviously bad when reporters are being arrested for no reason, but it's important to remember that all citizens — anybody who's old enough to operate a smartphone — has a right to record the official activities of police in public.