“A video that emerged over the weekend appears to show Darren Wilson, the cop who fatally shot teenager Michael Brown in a St. Louis suburb in August, telling a citizen he doesn’t have the right to record video of a 2013 encounter.
The details of the entire exchange are a little murky. But in almost all cases in the United States you actually do have the right to record police and other public officials carrying out their duties.
There are some state wiretapping laws that make it illegal to record audio of people without their consent, but the courts have consistently held that the First Amendment protects citizens’ right to record the police when they’re on the job. The police can’t stop you unless you’re interfering with their work — and they can’t take away your smart phone or delete the recordings just because you took video. Police need a warrant to mess with the content of your cell phone.
The Department of Justice has even officially weighed in on citizen recordings of law enforcement officers. Here’s what it said in a 2012 letter to attorneys for the Baltimore Police Department:
Policies should affirmatively set forth the contours of individuals’ First Amendment right to observe and record police officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties. Recording governmental officers engaged in public duties is a form of speech through which private individuals may gather and disseminate information of public concern, including the conduct of law enforcement officers.
Obviously, just because you have the right doesn’t mean all law enforcement officials will respect it. But there’s also a growing movement to make sure that police actions are almost always facing the scrutiny of video evidence by use of mandatory body cameras, or “bodycams,” on officers.”