Now that it's pretty much settled that the public has the right to record the police*, legislators are now moving to peel back this begrudgingly "granted" First Amendment protection.
*Exceptions, of course. Far, far too many of them.
Filed by Dallas State Representative Jason Villalba (R), the bill prohibits anyone in public within 25 feet of police to record them. The buffer is even greater at 100 feet, for anyone recording video who is also carrying a gun. Only accredited news organizations, like KENS5, would be allowed to record without the buffer zone.
Guess who gets to decide whether any unaccredited videographers are "too close" to the action? That's right. It'll be the person deploying handcuffs or demanding the camera be shut off/relinquished. It will all be in the eye of the uniformed beholder who's just going to eyeball the distance between him and the unaffiliated bodies of public accountability, and if it's close, just go ahead and call it a crime. A crime with some rather hefty penalties
, considering it involves recording public figures in public areas.
Anyone caught filming within the 25-foot radius could be prosecuted for a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. For gun-carriers who step within 100 feet, it would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Blogger Ex-Cop Law Student calls it the "Kory Watkins Law,"
after the open-carry activist, who has filmed many of his interactions
with local law enforcement.
This is basically a reaction to the confrontational style of Kory, who has a tendency to get very close to the officers while being loud and armed with either a rifle or a black powder revolver. So Villalba decided that a new law was needed, despite the fact that there is already a perfectly valid law on the book that deals with the issue.
Of course, the "valid" law is one that's already frequently abused: "interfering with public duties." This catch-all has snagged many citizens
and their cellphones. Villalba's proposal just gives police officers another way to legally violate the First Amendment rights of others.
Villalba's hardly a neutral party. According to the Dallas Observer
, his best man was a police officer. So are many of his family members and friends. This string of tweets
issued as the criticism began to roll in shows pretty clearly which side Villalba is legislating for.
There's nothing wrong with having cops as friends (and you can't choose your family members), but favoring a single subset of your constituents in order to -- at least, indirectly -- shield them from accountability isn't something legislators should be doing. They should be doing more to ensure their non-uniform-wearing, non-government employees are better equipped and more empowered to keep their public officials in line. This bill does nothing but create a larger power gap.
As always, it's an outsized "concern" for certain people's safety that is driving the legislation.
Villalba says cops often can't spare the time or attention to put up yellow tape or ask a photographer to step back. "They have the ability to say, 'Step back, please don't interfere,' but a lot of times these situations are in the heat of a law enforcement officer doing their jobs," he said. With HB 2918, "We're just trying to create enough separation, enough space so that officer feels comfortable."
Here's an idea: if they don't have time to push people around, then maybe they shouldn't waste those valuable moments harassing photographers. Most photographers aren't closing the distance between them and cops. It's usually the other way around -- officers approaching people they see filming. 25 feet is "reasonable" but it shouldn't be a misdemeanor and no legislator should be attempting to criminalize First Amendment-protected activity. Interfering with police duties is already illegal and it can be deployed if there's actual
interference occurring. If you're being prevented from doing your job (effecting an arrest, etc.), then it's legitimate. If not, then it's perfectly acceptable, no matter how annoying it might be personally
Ex-Cop Law Student points out the logical flaw in Villalba's "cops just don't have the time" argument:
Uh, Jason? If they are too busy to tell someone to move back, wouldn’t they be too busy to make an additional arrest? Because the purpose of the law is to criminalize the gathering of information that can be used to exercise the right to free speech. The fact that a law is on the books doesn’t magically make people move back, nor does it encourage the police to welcome citizen photographers. On the contrary, it encourages police officers to suppress free speech.
No matter how Villalba might frame it, and no matter how potentially pure his motivations (highly debatable), the fact remains that this law, if passed, will be just as abused as the one already on the books ("interfering with public duties"). In fact, it will be more
heavily abused because it gives the recorded the power to control the recordings.