Armed with mobile devices and social media, citizen journalists around the world have become essential agents of democracy, bearing witness to criminal behavior and abuses of power that might otherwise remain obscured and unseen. That genie’s not going back in the bottle. But the next time you happen upon an unfolding scene of injustice — particularly when police are involved — there are some things you need to know before you hit record.
When citizens become journalists — or, as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen put it, “When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another” — they step into uncertain territory, opening themselves up to physical danger, harassment and even arrest.
Know your rights. According to Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, the First Amendment rights of citizen journalists are clear.
“If you’re in a public place, you have a right to take pictures of anything that’s in plain view,” Stanley told Mic. “The courts have been all but unanimous that it’s a right protected by the First Amendment. It’s never reached the Supreme Court… but the law is very clear, and we’ve had litigation around the country, and we’ve never lost.”
So long as you aren’t obstructing a walkway or actively interfering with a criminal investigation, documenting events that are plainly visible in public is a constitutional right. This includes photographing or recording police and government officials in public.
“If an officer asks you to stop filming,” said Stanley, who created a handy guide for photographers who are stopped or detained, “remain polite, never physically resist and politely assert your rights and remind the officer you haven’t done anything suspicious or illegal and that you have a constitutional right to take photographs.”
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