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STVERAK: First Amendment victory for citizen journalists

Freedom of the press belongs to everyone, not just ‘official’ reporters

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2011

In a landmark decision, a federal court ruled last week that recording public officials, including police officers, is protected by the First Amendment. This decision, which may outrage law enforcement officials and members of Congress, is one of the first federal court decisions that brings the First Amendment into the Internet age.

This case emerged from separate incidents in which private citizens usedpersonal video cameras or cellphones to capture alleged police brutality.

The first occurred when Khaliah Fitchette, a New Jersey teenager, boarded a bus in Newark. As she waited for the bus to depart, two police officers boarded the bus to forcefully remove a drunken passenger. Ms. Fitchette began taping the police officers and refused to quit upon officer request. She was arrested and detained while the police deleted her footage. No charges were filed against Ms. Fitchette, but she filed a lawsuit against the Newark Police Department with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey.

The second incident occurred in Boston when Simon Glik pulled out his cellphone to tape police officers punching a man on the street. An officer asked Mr. Glik if he was recording audio. When Mr. Glik admitted that he was, the officer arrested him for violating the state's wiretap law. He also was charged with disturbing the peace and aiding the escape of a prisoner. The charges were dropped eventually because of lack of merit, but Mr. Glik joined the ACLU lawsuit, claiming his free-speech rights had been violated.

This decision is especially relevant to those who consider themselves citizen journalists and are not given legal protection by state shield laws and formal credentials. The court decision, in part, reads:

"Changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw. The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders with a ready cell phone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew, and news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status."

Although this decision does not clarify the much-debated discussion on who counts as "the press," it does state that freedom of the press and speech guaranteed in the First Amendment no longer just apply to salaried reporters.

The decision also acknowledges that current technological advancements have made the line between citizen journalists and mainstream media a little more undefined. Thisis beneficial not only to anyone who produces news but also news consumers as well.

Many forget that when a newspaper goes under, it is not only those reporters who have lost their jobs who are affected. Entire communities are left without news coverage and without access to vital information. Stepping up to fill the void left when a local newspaper cuts back or closes are citizen journalists. They have proved that it no longer takes press credentials or a NewYorkTimes business card to break national news. Citizen journalists have captured their local congressman in scandals and reported on the tax increases a state senator hoped no one would find. They do the same job that "mainstream reporters" are doing without either a paycheck or a fancy office.

Citizen journalists are doing their part to keep our government officials accountable to the people. They do this by attending a town-hall meeting and reporting on the events or taking out a cellphone and videotaping what is viewed as injustice by the police. They are preserving democracy and making their hometowns better places for their families and friends. It is a thankless service that our country cannot afford to dismiss.

By allowing citizens the protection to videotape government officials without fear of arrest and prosecution, this ruling is a victory to anyone who supports journalistic freedom. We welcome any and all citizen journalists who feel the need to take action to better their communities.

Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity (FranklinCenter HQ.org).

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