Reporters Committee plays key role in transparency, right-to-record cases

Demi Vitkute | Newsgathering | News | July 21, 2017
Three significant court victories this month helped advance the cause of access to public records and increased transparency. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed amicus briefs in all three cases, which involved the right to record police officers in public spaces, public access to dashboard videos of fatal encounters with police, and a ruling overturning Utah’s “ag-gag” law. The Reporters Committee argued in all three cases that greater access and openness is necessary for the public to stay informed and hold the government accountable to its citizens. 
 
On July 7, in its decision in Fields v. City of Philadelphia, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled that individuals have a constitutional right to photograph and film on-duty police officers in public. This marks a significant milestone, as the Third Circuit now joins the First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh in upholding the right to videotape law enforcement officials. The decision cited the Reporters Committee’s argument that bystanders’ recordings complement the role of the press and have improved professional reporting. 
 
The case stemmed from two incidents where individuals were recording police officers. In 2012, Amanda Geraci, a member of a local police-watchdog group, filmed police officers arresting a protester during an anti-fracking demonstration in Philadelphia. Police officers allegedly pushed her against a pillar to prevent her from recording. In 2013, Richard Fields, then an undergraduate at Temple University, recorded a number of police officers outside a house party. He refused to leave when police officers asked him to. One of the officers then confiscated his iPhone, smashed it on the ground, cracking its screen, and arrested Fields. 
 
The Reporters Committee, joined by 31 other organizations, filed an amicus brief arguing that if the police could stop a bystander from recording an officer in a public space then they could prevent journalists from recording as well, hindering the press in gathering the news. 
 
“The fact that both the news media and any member of the public have the right to engage in this collection of newsworthy information serves the public interest, as newsgathering works best when reporters work with regular citizens,” the brief stated.
 
But what if it’s not an individual who is in possession of the footage, but the police, and they refuse to release it to the press and the public? That’s the case in North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst
 
The North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record newspaper, requested access to the dash-cam video footage and other records from the fatal shooting of Kashad Ashford, a 23-year-old man who led police on a chase through several towns in a stolen SUV. Its Open Public Records Act request was denied. It then sued the department and won. But an appeals court later reversed the ruling, setting a precedent for other law enforcement agencies in New Jersey to deny news organization and the public access to records. 
 
The Reporters Committee and 19 other organizations filed an amicus brief in the case in 2015. They argued that press and public access to law enforcement records, particularly those relating to use of deadly force, serve the public interest. 
 
“The public needs information about these interactions in order to evaluate the conduct of public officials and law enforcement officers, and to contribute meaningfully to discussions about law enforcement policy and reform,” the brief stated. 
 
Access to government records also benefits police officers, as it can clear them of any allegations of misconduct, and increases trust between communities and law enforcement. 
 
On July 11, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that dash-cam video of fatal encounters with police should be released in most cases as a matter of public interest. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the 49-page decision that withholding the video "can undermine confidence in law enforcement and the work that officers routinely perform." This ruling is a major victory for the press and the public.
 
Another victory for free speech advocates happened recently in Utah, when U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled on July 7 that Utah’s “ag-gag” law, which bans secretly filming farms and slaughterhouses, is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment’s free-speech protections. 
 
In 2013, Amy Myer, an animal rights activist, drove to Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper City, Utah, and from the side of the road through a barbed-wired fence, recorded cows struggling with workers who tried to lead them into a building. The manager came outside and told her to stop. She was arrested and later found out she was being prosecuted under the state’s “ag-gag” law. After charges were eventually dropped, she sued over the civil rights violation, joined by a handful of activists, journalists and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. 
 
The Reporters Committee and 17 other organizations filed an amicus brief in the case in 2016, ALDF v. Herbert, arguing that “by criminalizing audio and image recordings at agriculture plants, the Utah “ag-gag” statute weakens food safety while stifling free speech.” Journalists, advocacy organizations, and federal inspectors that conduct investigations into agriculture facilities all play a role in advancing the safety of the food, the brief argued. However, there are problems within the inspection system that leave a gap in food safety that journalists have filled. “The Utah statute poses a substantial risk of criminalizing lawful—and constitutionally protected—newsgathering activity and chilling the very journalism and whistleblowing that has previously led to positive changes and a healthier food supply,” the brief stated. 
 
The public is entitled to know the events leading up to a police-involved shooting in their community and how their food is being produced.  Access to information allows the public to hold the police and other public agencies accountable and promote reform where it is needed.