Nine local organizations have asked police departments across the state to formally adopt policies codifying the public’s right to record, without interference, the actions of police. The request, contained in a letter sent to all municipal police departments and the State Police, was made in the backdrop of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where police have impeded individuals’ and credentialed journalists’ efforts to document the ongoing protests there.
The letter from the organizations – the Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition, American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, NAACP Providence Branch, Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Organization of Social Workers/RI, Rhode Island State Council of Churches, Providence Youth Student Movement, RI Commission for Human Rights, and the American Friends Service Committee of Southeastern New England – strongly encouraged the police chiefs to issue a memo emphasizing that officers must respect the public’s right to record police activity in most circumstances.
The letter emphasized that “members of the public have a First Amendment right to video record the activities of police officers, as long as they do not directly interfere with the ability of officers to perform their duties.”
The organizations pointed to two key decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Rhode Island, emphasizing the importance of this right. In one ruling, the court stated: “Though not unqualified, a citizen’s right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.”
The organizations said that other police agencies across the country, including the Washington, DC and New York police departments, have issued memos to ensure their officers are aware of their obligations and encouraged Rhode Island’s police departments to proactively do the same.
“We believe that, by acting proactively and issuing a memo that makes this point clear, your department can also help avoid or minimize conflict between officers and the community in the future when individuals seek to exercise this right,” the letter stated.