Who hasn’t seen videos of police manhandling citizens who were allegedly involved in criminal activity? Such accounts, usually recorded by interested onlookers, have informed the public of the unnecessary use of force by officers across the country. Imagine how little we would know about Rodney King, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, George Floyd, and many, many others had no one taken the time to record the horrendous incidents. But beyond simply videotaping arrests and other police interactions with the public, is it legal to actually livestream them? While livestreaming might benefit the fight for civil rights, might it also hamper an officer’s ability to do their job and even lead to uprisings and riots? After all, we have seen as much with the use of video; wouldn’t livestreaming be even more evocative?
The First Amendment
The right of people to videotape law enforcement officers when they are performing public duties has been repeatedly upheld in courts across the country, which have found that it is unmistakably a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But livestreaming is another thing altogether, allowing the public broadcast of an officer interaction in real-time. What does the law say about that?
Plenty of officers are uptight about livestreaming when they are on duty, saying it interferes with their ability to do their jobs properly and creates the potential for additional dangers. While the law is evolving on this issue, the Fourth Circuit has provided some direction regarding the legality of livestreaming.
The February 2023 case (Sharpe v Winterville Police Department) involved a motorist who was stopped by police. At the beginning of the interaction, a passenger began to livestream the occasion. The officer attempted to take the passenger’s phone, explaining that while the passenger videotaping the interaction was permissible, livestreaming was not because it could lead to an unwanted hazard if others viewing the stream showed up and caused problems at the scene of the traffic stop.
The passenger was having none of that, and challenged the officer’s contentions in court, maintaining First Amendment Rights had been violated. The Fourth Circuit agreed with the plaintiff, writing that livestreaming does contribute to the information the public has about law enforcement activity and is protected by the First Amendment under these circumstances.
Nonetheless, the court did appreciate that officer safety might be an issue in some situations:
- In the event an individual became proximate to the officer, inhibiting the ability to perform duties;
- In the event viewers of the livestream were invited to the scene in order to demonstrate or otherwise impede the officer’s actions.
Under these circumstances, officers potentially could have more leeway legally to claim that First Amendment protections were limited and might not include livestreaming.
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