Magazine article Reason

The Right to Record Walter Scott's Death: Illegal Harassment of Camera-Carrying Bystanders

Magazine article Reason

The Right to Record Walter Scott's Death: Illegal Harassment of Camera-Carrying Bystanders

Article excerpt

EVEN BEFORE it became clear that Feidin Santana was witnessing what local authorities later described as a murder, it took guts for him to record the police encounter that ended in Walter Scott's death. Santana, who was walking to work at a barbershop in North Charleston, South Carolina, the day before Easter, risked retaliation by camera-shy cops the moment he stopped talking on his smartphone and started using it to capture Scott's interaction with patrolman Michael Slager.

Although the First Amendment right to record the police as they perform their duties in public is well established, cops often violate that right by ordering people to turn off their cameras, confiscating their cellphones, or arresting them on trumped-up charges. The shooting of Walter Scott, which led to Slager's arrest thanks to the details revealed by Santana's video, illustrates both the prevalence of this contempt for constitutional rights and the importance of counteracting it.

After Scott fell to the ground, struck by five of the eight rounds that Slager fired at him as he fled a traffic stop, Santana continued recording. "One of the officers told me to stop," Santana told CNN. "It was because I say to them that what they did, it was an abuse, and I witnessed everything."

The New York Times reported that when Scott's older brother, Anthony, arrived at the crime scene and took pictures of the body, three officers "surrounded him, telling him to turn over his phone." He gave it to them. "Hours later," the Times said, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers "arrived, returned Mr. Scott's phone and offered his condolences."

As Driggers seemed to recognize, there is no legal basis for such interference with camera-carrying bystanders. The right to record police has been explicitly upheld by at least four federal appeals courts and implicitly recognized by others.

Federal judges outside of those four circuits have ruled that the right to record flows logically from the First Amendment right to gather information and applies equally to everyone, not just credentialed journalists. …

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