According to a recent Federal Appeals court ruling, Republican members of Congress who confiscate citizens’ cell phones or cameras and do not allow filming at town halls are violating their constituents First Amendment rights.
One of the ways that unpopular House Republicans have been trying to dodge the wrath of their angry constituents during the August recess is to not allow filming at their town halls. Last week, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio directed on duty police officers to confiscate the cameras of citizens who tried to film his responses at a recent town hall. Chabot justified this behavior as necessary for the protection of his constituents, but a Federal Court ruling on Friday makes it clear that the Republicans who engaging in this behavior are violating the First Amendment rights of their constituents.
The case brought before the court involved a man in Boston who was arrested for filming the police with his cell phone while they were making a separate arrest of a young man in public. The man who did the filming with his cell phone filed suit alleging that his First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The district court ruled in favor of the person who filmed the arrest, and the state appealed.
The judge ruled,
It is firmly established that the First Amendment’s aegis extends further than the text’s proscription on laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information.
As the Supreme Court has observed, “the First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.” First Nat’l Bank v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783 (1978); see also Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 564 (1969) (“It is . . .well established that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas.”). An important corollary to this interest in protecting the stock of public information is that “[t]here is an undoubted right to gather news ‘from any source by means within the law.’” Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1, 11 (1978) (quoting Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 681-82 (1972)).
The filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these principles. 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.” Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966).
Moreover, as the Court has noted, “[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because ‘[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.’” First Nat’l Bank, 435 U.S. at 777 n.11 (alteration in original) (quoting Thomas Emerson, Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment 9 (1966)).
The court found that people have the First Amendment right to film government officials in public while they are carrying out their duties. In fact, this right is necessary in our democracy to counteract attempts by those who have power to suppress the rights of citizens. The act of not allowing the public to film the carrying out of congressional duties in public is an act of First Amendment suppression.
These same members of the House who prided themselves on their knowledge of the Constitution, and made a show of beginning the new Congress with a reading of the Constitution is so willing to violate the First Amendment rights of their constituents. The House Republicans will look you in the eye and moan about “big government” and “loss of liberty” while they simultaneously violate your First Amendment rights.
If you attempt to attend a town hall at a public place, and someone tells you that you cannot film the event, let them know that they are violating your First Amendment rights. Be sure to bring a copy of the court ruling with you, and it would also be nice of you to highlight the section on filming and the First Amendment. These are your rights. Don’t back down.
Most importantly, they are trying to prevent you from filming because they are afraid. These members of Congress who are trying to take away your rights are afraid of you. You should never be afraid of them.
If you have attended a town hall and had your rights violated, email us your story.