Do you remember this case – this video I posted about a few months back – about whether there’s a constitutional right to “livestream” encounters with police officers? Well there’s a huge update from that case that you’re not going to want to miss, or rather misunderstand. As I explained in the prior video, livestream video removes the ability of dishonest cops to destroy evidence and conceal their misconduct. That’s a good thing for us. But not surprisingly, they don’t like that. So, they attempted to find a way around it. “Officer safety.”
Here’s the original video:
Then you had this traffic stop involving Dijon Sharpe in Winterville, North Carolina, which then turned into a federal civil rights lawsuit. As discussed in the first video, that case was lost at the trial court level, and appeared to have backfired against the plaintiff, and in favor of government. Well now that has changed.
Last week the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s ruling and confirmed that we indeed have a First Amendment right to livestream police officers, including as an occupant of a vehicle during a traffic stop. But, as government likes to remind us, it’s not absolute. The government could still infringe on those rights under certain facts.
My favorite excerpts from the opinion:
Creating and disseminating information is protected speech under the First Amendment. Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 564 U.S. 552, 570 (2011). “‘[A] major purpose of’ the First Amendment ‘was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs.’” Ariz. Free Enter. Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, 564 U.S. 721, 755 (2011) (quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 14 (1976) (per curiam)).
And other courts have routinely recognized these principles extend the First Amendment to cover recording—particularly when the information involves matters of public interest like police encounters. See, e.g., Ness v. City of Bloomington, 11 F.4th 914, 923 (8th Cir. 2021) (“The act of . . . recording videos [is] entitled to First Amendment protection because [it is] an important stage of the speech process that ends with the dissemination of information about a public controversy.”).
We agree. Recording police encounters creates information that contributes to discussion about governmental affairs. So too does livestreaming disseminate that information, often creating its own record. We thus hold that livestreaming a police traffic stop is speech protected by the First Amendment….
The Town purports to justify the policy based on officer safety. [Appellees’ Response Brief at 55.] According to Defendants, livestreaming a traffic stop endangers officers because viewers can locate the officers and intervene in the encounter. [J.A. 9.] They support this claim by arguing, with help from amici, that violence against police officers has been increasing—including planned violence that uses new technologies. [See, e.g., Amicus Brief of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association at 9.] On Defendants’ view, banning livestreaming prevents attacks or related disruptions that threaten officer safety.
Here’s the full opinion:
Despite the government’s claims, the Court found that the government had not established a sufficient specific officer safety issue due to traffic stop occupants engaged in this constitutionally protected activity. However, the Court left open the possibility that the government could do so.
Unfortunately, the opinion granted qualified immunity to the individual officers in the lawsuit, finding that since this was the first opinion confirming this specific constitutional right, that the right was not clearly established, and that therefore the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.
The important part is however, that from this point on, police officers are on notice, whether they choose to be ignorant or not, that livestreaming is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. So in the end, the case did not actually backfire. It worked. The process worked. And although these individual officers will not be held accountable, this opinion will form the basis for others being held accountable in the future.
With qualified immunity, we have to be happy with each and every win that we get. Remember that when the government attempts to use “officer safety” to steal our freedoms, what is the proper response? That’s right: Freedom is Scary. They need to deal with it, or get another job.