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The ability to livestream cops is being challenged as a First Amendment right

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According to many civil liberties groups, livestreaming the police is protected by the First Amendment and is crucial in the documentation process.

In 2018, Dijon Sharpe was stopped by two police officers in North Carolina. He began livestreaming his interaction with the officers on social media.

The officer told him that he was not allowed to stream and attempted to cut off the live video by seizing his phone. Sharpe filed a lawsuit (here) arguing that the police officers violated his First Amendment right to record and livestream an interaction with the police.

Most courts have upheld a citizen’s right to record the police. But the court handling this case distinguished between recording and live-streaming, arguing the latter was not protected by the First Amendment.

The court also ruled that the right to record the police only applies to bystanders, not the person who has been stopped by the police.

The ACLU filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that the court was wrong in both rulings.

Live video is not a new phenomenon and there are many examples of reporters’ live videos on the scene of breaking news for decades.

“These broadcasts are protected by the First Amendment: Speech is protected regardless of medium, and the choice of when to publish is part of freedom of speech,” an ACLU member wrote.

We obtained a copy of the filed brief here.

They continued to argue that live-streaming police interaction on social media has helped document some police interactions that would have been lost.

“In 2016, Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, famously livestreamed the moments immediately following Minnesota police fatally shooting him. In doing so, she shared and preserved the horrific reality of a deadly police interaction. And, had she not been livestreaming, the footage might never have made it to the public eye, because police handcuffed Diamond during her livestream, causing her phone to fall to the ground. Because she was livestreaming, however, the conduct and words of the police were still shared and preserved after the phone fell.”

It is illegal, but the police still destroy recorded video evidence by seizing phones and destroying cameras and memory cards. But a livestream cannot as easily be destroyed as it is instantly available online.

The ACLU feels the people interacting with the police have a right to record because they are “ even more vulnerable to experiencing violence and not being able to document it. And they have a unique perspective to share.”

Police body cams are not very reliable as many departments do not have strict rules. Officers intentionally switch them off or block them when conducting unlawful acts, and they only provide the point-of-view of the officer. Additionally, the police can unlawfully withhold body cam footage from the public.

Recordings and livestreams of police interaction might be the only proof of police misconduct in some cases. The ACLU argues it is important to protect those rights because “our ability to speak about police abuses depends on it.”

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