THE FIRST Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits in Boston, struck an important blow for civil liberties late last month when it ruled that a man arrested for taping Boston police on the Common in 2007 could go forward with his lawsuit against the city. The standard for suing police is rightfully high. A plaintiff can sue only for violations of “clearly established rights.’’ But that is exactly what happened when police arrested Simon Glik for taping them.
Glik was walking on the Common when he saw a group of officers arresting a man with what seemed like excessive force. Glik pulled out his cellphone and started recording video and audio from about 10 feet away. The police responded by arresting Glik, charging him with wiretapping, and confiscating his phone. Although Glik was soon freed and the charges dropped, he sued the city over his unlawful arrest. The Police Department defended itself, not by claiming that the arrest was legal, but by claiming that the right to tape police is not “clearly established’’ by the First Amendment.
The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit wisely disagreed. It declared that the “filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place’’ came within the core protections of the First Amendment, with voices included. The court found this to be clearly established and deeply rooted in precedent.
Nonetheless, there are still Americans arrested every year for recording the police in states spanning the country from Texas to Maryland. The increased use of smartphones means that police are far more likely to be recorded in the line of duty than in the past. This may be understandably unnerving, but officers need to learn to accept the scrutiny rather than lash out with unlawful arrests.
The right to hold public officials to account, from the president down to the local beat cop, is fundamental to a free and open society. It may now be exercised with new technology, but the principle is as old as our nation itself.