Under the First Amendment to the Constitution, you generally have the right to engage in expressive freedom of speech in a public place. The evolution of what constitutes "speech" has expanded to include videos, so long as they are expressive (intended to communicate a message to an audience).
So, is recording video footage of police interactions covered under your First Amendment rights?
Especially in the state of Pennsylvania, there is conflicting legislature over the right to film police officers. Each situation may be handled differently, but there are a few general guidelines and restrictions that may be helpful to be aware of.
Filming police in the course of public duty
The right to film police officers is subject to restrictions pertaining to time, place and manner. The officer should be performing official, law enforcement duties in public while being recorded. Those who are recording the officer should also be in a public place and must keep from interfering with the officer’s duties. "Public duties" of police officers may refer to:
- Investigating (in public)
- Detaining an individual (in public)
- On patrol
- Conducting a traffic stop
In the alleged police discrimination case at a Philadelphia Starbucks, multiple customers filmed the interaction between six police officers and two black men, who were meeting a friend at the café restaurant. Customers filming the incident recorded police officers that were in the course of public duty. Those who filmed the incident also avoided interference with the police’s decision to escort the two men out of the restaurant. These factors all help substantiate the lawfulness of recording the scene under the First Amendment.
If you are obstructing the police during their course of duty or if your presence interferes with an investigation, an officer may lawfully order you to stop filming and relocate.
Pennsylvania's wiretapping law is a "two-party consent" law, in which intercepting or recording a telephone call or conversation is a crime, unless all parties to the conversation have given their consent to be recorded. It is not a violation of the Pennsylvania wiretap law to videotape and audiotape police officers in the course of public police duties.
If you have encountered a police officer that stopped you from taking photographs or videos, an attorney may be able to help secure your rights. If you believe you or someone you know may have been a victim of police brutality or illegal search and seizure, consult a Philadelphia attorney immediately.