Does the First Amendment Only Apply to Media? Is There a Right to Record?

Do you have to be a journalist to have First Amendment protections to film in public? Is there a right to record police or other government officials in public? Let me tell you what the federal courts have said…..

To record what there is for the eye to see, or the ear to hear, corroborates or lays aside subjective impressions for objective facts. Hence to record is to see and hear more accurately. Recordings also facilitate discussion because of the ease in which they can be widely distributed via different forms of media. Accordingly, recording police activity in public falls squarely within the First Amendment right of access to information. As no doubt the press has this right, so does the public. See PG Publ’g. Co. v. Aichele, 705 F.3d 91, 99 (3d Cir. 2013); Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 684, 92 S.Ct. 2646, 33 L.Ed.2d 626 (1972) (quoting Fields v. City of Phila., 862 F.3d 353, 359 (3rd Cir. 2017)).

Under the First Amendment’s right of access to information the public has the commensurate right to record—photograph, film, or audio record—police officers conducting official police activity in public areas. Fields v. City of Phila., 862 F.3d 353, 360 (3rd Cir. 2017) (“The First Amendment protects actual photos, videos, and recordings, and for this protection to have meaning the Amendment must also protect the act of creating that material.” (citation omitted)); See also ACLU v. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583, 599–600 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 651, 184 L.Ed.2d 459 (2012) (holding that an Illinois eavesdropping statute did not protect police officers from a civilian openly recording them with a cell phone); Turner v. Lieutenant Driver, 848 F.3d 678, 689 (5th Cir. 2017) (“[T]he First Amendment protects the act of making film, as there is no fixed First Amendment line between the act of creating speech and the speech itself.” (quotation omitted); W. Watersheds Project v. Michael, 869 F.3d 1189 (10th Cir. 2017) (agreeing with several sister circuits that recording the conduct of officials in general is protected First Amendment speech); Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 79 (1st Cir.2011) (holding there is an “unambiguous[ ]” constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public); Smith v. Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332, 1333 (11th Cir.2000) (finding plaintiffs “had a First Amendment right, subject to reasonable time, manner and place restrictions, to photograph or videotape police conduct”); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436, 439 (9th Cir.1995) (recognizing plaintiff’s videotaping of police officers as a “First Amendment right to film matters of public interest”). 

Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the public has the right to record police officers and government officials from the vantage point of standing on their own private property – and indeed, standing in their own front yard, or within their home.

Can the recordings then be seized by police?

Recently, the Fourth Circuit observed in the context of a claim of seizure of cell phone video footage by law enforcement, that we live “[i]n an era in which cell phones are increasingly used to capture much of what happens in daily life” and that such recordings are protected from seizure by law enforcement under the Fourth Amendment. Hupp v. State Trooper Seth Cook, 931 F.3d 307, 329 (4th Cir. 2019).

But, keep in mind, they could still be subject to seizure without a warrant under the exigent circumstances doctrine…..