Just the facts
Citizen Simon Glik was walking in nation's oldest public park, the Boston Common, and stopped to video 3 police officers arresting a young man. After the arrest one of the officers turned to Glik, confirmed that he was recording audio, and arrested him for violating the state's wiretap statute.
Glik was charged with wiretapping, disturbing the peace and aiding the escape of a prisoner. The last was so silly the state dismissed the charge.
The Boston Municipal Court found Glik not guilty of the other charges, noting the audio recording was not secret and carried out in plain view. Glik complained to the police, but they refused to investigate, so he filed a civil rights suit for violation of his 1st and 4th Amendment rights.
The officers claimed "qualified immunity" - a rule meant to protect public officials from legal harassment while performing their lawful duties - which was denied by the US District Court. The officers appealed to the US Appeals Court for the 1st Circuit - kind of like 2nd level tech support - which issued this historic ruling.
Public video of officials is an "established right"
The cop's legal argument was that Glik's recording their actions was not an "established right." The Court did not agree.
All citizens with a video phone or camcorder should read the Court's opinion (pdf). It is readable and thoughtful, deconstructing the issues in plain language.
Here's a key conclusion:
In summary, though not unqualified, a citizen's right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.
Not only police
Lest you think this is only an issue with the police, it isn't:
Monday night, at a “town hall” meeting in North Avondale featuring U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, video cameras owned by two Democratic activists were seized by a Cincinnati police officer at the direction of Chabot’s staff.
Cameras belong to the media were not seized. A stink was raised and the 7-term congressman said it wouldn't happen again.
The Storage Bits take
Your rights: use 'em or lose 'em. Video is a major driver of storage consumption for good reason: while memories are terribly unreliable, video captures detail that few humans can equal.
The Founder's concern for governmental abuse of power led them to the separation of powers that makes government inefficient and slow - a feature, not a bug. But we give local officials, including police, considerable discretion in the performance of their duties, discretion that is sometimes abused.
Widespread video use helps protect both police and citizens from unfounded accusations while offering greater transparency to us all. This ruling doesn't end the fight for our rights, but it is an important milestone.
Comments welcome, of course. Hey, maybe the Supremes will someday acknowledge even the 9th amendment. Nah, too radical for our "originalist" conservatives.