Justice Department Pressed to Intervene When Police Arrest Grassroots Journalists
By: Shahid Buttar
Across the country, civilian journalists have documented government violence using cell phones to record police activities, forcing a much-needed national discourse. But in case after case after case after case, the people who face penalties in the wake of police violence are the courageous and quick-witted residents who use technology to enable transparency.
Earlier this month, the International Documentary Association launched an online petition to the Department of Justice asking the federal government to intervene when local police arrest or otherwise harass civilians who document and record police violence. EFF was proud to sign the petition, since this is an issue on which we have been increasingly active.
Led by film makers Laura Poitras and David Felix Sutcliffe, the petition also calls for an official investigation exploring "the larger pattern of abuse that has emerged on a federal, state, and local level, and the threat it poses to free speech and a free press." Finally, the petition urges "our peers in the journalistic community to investigate and report on these abuses."
Poitras' film Citizenfour, documenting the Edward Snowden revelations, won the 2015 Oscar award for Best Documentary. Sutcliffe directed (T)error, which is the first film ever to document an FBI sting operation as it unfolds (and in the interest of full disclosure, briefly features the author of this post).
While the First Amendment protects freedom of the press, and applies to grassroots journalists in addition to their professional counterparts, those protections have often been disregarded by police officers unable to accept civilian oversight and the public exposure of their violence.
Meanwhile, despite well-settled jurisprudence establishing the right to observe and record police activities, even the federal judiciary has occasionally failed to vindicate these principles.
Arrests of grassroots journalists who record police activities implicate not only the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, but also the very legitimacy of our legal system, which grounds its claim to power in impartiality. Yet, around the country, the law has subjected to penalties people pursuing constitutionally protected activities that enhance transparency, while turning a blind eye to the violence prompting residents to place themselves at risk.
At issue is not merely a fundamental constitutional right, nor the transparency on which democracy rests, but the ability for community residents to use technology to document violence endured by their neighbors.
The monitoring of public servants who have pledged to "protect and serve" should not represent a risk in a free society. That's why EFF is proud to sign and support the International Documentary Association's petition.
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