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Citizen journalists don’t need “Press Credentials” — but that badge may help

Citizen journalists don’t need “Press Credentials” — but that badge may help

Freely available “press credentials” may help citizen journalists avoid abusive conduct by the police or others.

Have you noticed that everything nowadays gets videotaped? With everyone suddenly having a smart-phone that photographs and videotapes, every newsworthy or even trivial event gets recorded and presented on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, or onto someone’s blog.

This phenomenon has coincided with the movement of “citizen journalists,” who aim to bring the straight news to blogs and websites all over, giving the unvarnished news to anyone who cares to check the website in question, oftentimes pointed there by the Drudge Report or another news aggregator.

No licenses or formal credentials are needed – just a thirst for getting the straight truth out there for viewers or readers to watch and make up their own minds. What about videotaping the police? So much of what they do is newsworthy, and their salaries are paid by our tax-dollars. You would think that videotaping the police in a public area, not interfering with them, would be perfectly fine.

Try telling that to Emily Good, the Rochester, New York resident who in 2011 saw the local police arresting someone right in front of her house. From her front yard, Ms. Good pulled out her iPod and started filming.

One of the officers involved saw the filming and claimed that he felt unsafe with her filming from that location, so Ms. Good backed up and kept filming. The officer ordered Ms. Good to stop filming and go inside her house, which she refused. Then the officer arrested Ms. Good, claiming that she was obstructing the arrest.

The criminal case against Ms. Good was dismissed as soon as a local prosecutor read some of the details, but she spent many hours in jail, and several police officers later showed up at a meeting of supporters and issued parking tickets for cars parked more than 12 inches from the curb.

Stories like this are legion.

Police simply do not like being photographed or videotaped, and whenever a citizen is caught recording the public actions of the police, it is treated like a crime. Physical abuse of the citizen and confiscation and destruction of the camera or phone involved are common.

A website named Photography Is Not A Crime, or PINAC, has been set up to chronicle harassment of people photographing or videotaping police in public. Just last week the PINAC website reported of a citizen in Tucson, Arizona, who was injured after a police officer yanked the man’s camera, and the strap from the camera pulled on the man’s neck.

Fortunately, there has been some pushback from the courts. The most notable among the court cases in this issue is the 2011 federal First Circuit appellate case, Glik vs. Cunniffe. In Glik, the court held that it is perfectly legal for anyone to videotape the police in public, so long as the person videotaping does not interfere with the police.The ruling is binding only in the First Circuit, which includes Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico, but the decision is persuasive in courts elsewhere.

Word is slowly getting around. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently issued a legal advisory to people who intend to photograph public buildings and police officers in public. The main issues are whether the photographer is in a public place and staying out of the way of the police while they are doing their job. The ACLU also cautions against breaking any unrelated laws, like trespassing, while photographing or videotaping. Pretty simple, right?

Yet the police harassment of citizens with cameras or video recorders continues. About the only thing that police will respect– sometimes – is a display of press credentials.& Enter the Constitution First Amendment Press Association, or CFAPA. Started by James Rawles, survival blogger and author of several
post-apocalyptic best-selling books, the CFAPA website will issue free press credentials and a press badge.

Here is how it works: go to the CFAPA website, found at, read and agree to the Constitutional Journalist’s pledge and member terms. These essentially spell out ethical rules for journalists and provide indemnity for CFAPA. Then download and fill in your name and date of issuance for your press credentials and badge. The press badge would also need a recent photo before you laminate it. That’s it!

Even for someone who does not intend to seek and record the actions of the police in public, it is good to have the CFAPA press credential and press badge handy, just in case. And besides, they are free. CFAPA operates on donations, or sales at its Amazon store, which, humorously, lists for sale trench coats and fedora hats. Presumably, wearing this will enable the citizen journalist to look like one of the reporters in the movie His Girl Friday. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Rawles told me.

But the CFAPA Amazon store also contains more serious items like press badge holders, cameras, voice recorders, books on reporting style and dealing with the police.

And the press badge and credentials are serious, but they “should not be needed forever,” Rawles said. “Our goal at CFAPA is that, as press credentials become as ubiquitous as cell phones with video capabilities, we will be working ourselves out of business. Someday we will just be happy to shut down the website as unnecessary.” Until then, Rawles said, the free press credentials and press badge are “a great leveler,” and another weapon in the arsenal of citizen journalists.

“For a law enforcement officer in public, there should be no expectation of privacy. They are public servants, to be held in the highest level of accountability, and the best way to hold them accountable is to document their activities. If a police officer wants to tell people to turn off their video recorders in a public place, the police officer should move to North Korea.”

Hopefully, this may someday become a non-issue. The reasoning in the Glik may slowly persuade more courts across the country, or even a similar case could be decided by the US Supreme Court and apply to all courts. Or, as Rawles said, “with the police so accustomed to people calling themselves journalists and being able to show credentials at the drop of a hat, that they will start giving everyone the same courtesy that they would give a regularly-credentialed journalist.” That sounds only fair.


Tom Thurlow is an attorney who practices law in the San Francisco Bay Area and manages the blog Watch for his upcoming book, WhineTasting, which will be released later this fall.


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You left out the press credential link?

What is the first thing a police officer in training is taught?

Say “I feared for my safety.”

    You are wrong sir. The first thing a cop is taught is “What is the most important thing for us at the beginning of the shift. To make it to the end of the shift.”

      david7134 in reply to MikeAT. | October 7, 2014 at 10:51 am

      Your implication is that the police have a dangerous job. Look it up. They actually have one of the safest jobs in the country. They are not “heroes”. They are bullies and enjoy the role. They are not there to “protect and serve”. I used to have significant respect for law enforcement. That was until I saw what they do, how they act, how they avoid danger (at the expense of the taxpayer), how they create danger and how they self promote. Then we can get into how they have shaped drug laws to make it more difficult for a chronically ill individual to obtain pain relief or someone with a stopped up nose to clear it with the appropriate drug. We have a cop problem in the US and need to rein them in.

FYI, in MA it IS a crime to record ANYBODY, police included, without their permission.

And yes, they prosecute and convict., ESPECIALLY if you’ve recorded an LEO.

Might these convictions be Unconstitutional? Sure. Might they be terrible public policy? ABSOLUTELY.

They’re still convictions.

–Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

    Challenge the law in court?

    I can’t believe in the People’s Republic of Massachusetts. And I will agree with the ACLU (the broken clock) that this needs to be challenged and thrown out.

    sequester in reply to Andrew Branca. | October 5, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    Andrew — you may want to take note of Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78 (1st Cir. 2011)

    The First Circuit Court of Appelas held that a private citizen had the right to record video and audio of public officials, including police officers. The Court found that

    Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting “the free discussion of governmental affairs

    and was not a violation of the Massachusetts wiretap law. It found Glik’s arrest violated the Fourth Amendment.

In SC it is not a crime to tell a LEO to “slow down”. I did just that in December 2001. A local detective was speeding thru town, nearly ran me and my daughter over…I yelled at him to slow down. He circled the block, pulled up to the curb in front of me and my daughter with his blue light on and chastised me that saying things like that “are how false rumors get spread”. Seriously. BTW, he was not on duty and was in his personal vehicle….which was a huge Ford F-250 about three feet off the ground. He was a notorious little slug that no one liked. You know the kind, the kid that got beat up, whipped and made fun of all his life and went into law enforcement to exact revenge.

    Once upon a time, in a small southern town, a “man” I knew threw an empty beer can at a vehicle speeding through a quiet suburban neighborhood with a 20 m.p.h. posted speed limit. Turns out it was the town’s unmarked police Jeep SUV, driven by a young officer. The “man” identified himself as a lawyer, and told the officer politely that if he is going to speed though the neighborhood, please have the blue lights and siren on so the kids can get out of the way.

Mr Thurlow

As a former German commander said to us in a WWII history class, “Now the from view from the other side.”

I am a 16 year veteran of law enforcement in a major city, mostly on patrol. Agreed, if I’m in the public, I have no reasonable expectation of privacy. Therefore, there should be no issue with being videotaped on the public as long as it’s done at a safe distance. What is a safe distance? My rule of thumb is across the street. Why that distance? I’m going to be occupied with handling something (A disturbance, a suspect, etc) and I want some distance so if a “citizen journalist” decides to become an actor in the incident, I have distance/time to react. I can’t count how many times I’ve been fighting a suspect on the ground and heard people close (i.e. less than ten feet away) screaming at me I’m being too rough on him. The fact I’m in hand to hand combat with a suspect and one of his buddies may be in the crowd about to jump in is a serious safety issue.

Another issue that cops have with video is how the video will be used. Will is be chopped to eliminate how the suspect lunged at the officer before he used his baton or TASER on him? Will the part where the suspect threated to “f%^& you up cop!” be confidently edited from the version that is carried on NBC news or YouTube. If you think that is not done can I introduce you to a man named George Zimmerman. Or Richard Jewell. Or in a more recent case of yellow journalism where CNN had audio of a man doing sex chat on the internet and immediately posted it without any checking into validity.

As a side angle to this point, what if someone video tapes three officers trying to take a suspect into custody and puts it on YouTube. In Graham vs O’Connor (1989), the Supreme Court rules an officer’s actions cannot be judged from the viewpoint of a third person in relative comfort, in no danger at a later date, but from the man on the scene possibly struggling for his life.

“(c) The Fourth Amendment “reasonableness” inquiry is whether the officers’ actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation. Pp. 490 U. S. 396-397.”

So when the officers are investigated by the Internal Affairs Division they can explain why they struck him multiple times with a baton, “because he would not show us his hands and was trying to pull away from us.” That is legal justification for use of Intermediate Force, e.g. baton strikes or TASER. But is that what will be covered on the local news? I think not.

For example, often media will report that an officer shot “an unarmed suspect” as if that is the standard for use of deadly force. As established by Tennessee vs Garner (1985), the standard is if the actor has reasonable fear for the life or serious bodily injury of himself or a third person. If a large man is trying to push an officer off of a bridge over a highway, does he have reasonable fear for his life or serious bodily injury? Absolutely, and he is justified in using deadly force. Inconvenient facts of law will often be edited out.

Back to your basic issue, yes, the public has every right to video tape police in the open. However, we still have the authority to control a scene to insure the safety of all and the integrity of the crime scene.

    Shane in reply to MikeAT. | October 5, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    I fully empathize with you Mike and BTW thank you for doing the job very few are willing to do.

    Don’t forget that video works both ways. When many people are video taping some won’t be as sympathetic to the joker that punched you and tried to claim something else. It is hard to know and understand that there are others out there that may understand what is happening and I think that a lot of the reason that many police officers walk on most charges is because people see beyond the single point of view being presented.

    The assumption that people can’t understand what a police officer is dealing with, to me, is just plain wrong. I think one would be hard pressed to find an adult male that hasn’t been in some sort of physical altercation. From this we can understand much of what is happening. That said not enough is being done to weed out the bad eggs in police precincts. It would be very detrimental to your career as a police officer to step and say something about another officer whom you know is abusive and dangerous. But a camera, well that is another story and if all of you are wearing one during the incident it becomes very difficult for the bad egg to wiggle out and you don’t even have to put your job on the line to get that guy gone. Please embrace the videos, wear cameras yourself and always run your dashcam. The more cameras the better … for all of us.

    Spiny Norman in reply to MikeAT. | October 6, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    …there should be no issue with being videotaped on the public as long as it’s done at a safe distance.

    I have no problem with this, and I doubt many LI readers would disagree. There’s a difference between recording an LEO’s actions and interfering with them.

Wee Bobby Zimmerman had a related comment:

Up on Housing Project Hill
It’s either fortune or fame
You must pick one or the other
Though neither of them are to be what they claim
If you’re lookin’ to get silly
You better go back to from where you came
Because the cops don’t need you
And man they expect the same.