Federal court ruling provides a victory for grassroots journalism

Last month, a federal court ruled that recording public officials, including police officers, is protected by the First Amendment. This decision, which may outrage law enforcement officials and members of Congress, is one of the first federal court decisions that brings the First Amendment into the Internet age.

This case emerged from an incident where a private citizen used his personal cell phone to capture alleged police brutality.

Simon Glik could have walked away when he saw two police officers punching a man in the face. Instead, he pulled out his cellphone and started recording it. When Mr. Glik informed the police officers that he was recording audio, the officer arrested him for violating the state’s wiretap law. He also was charged with disturbing the peace and aiding the escape of a prisoner. The charges were dropped eventually because of lack of merit, but Mr. Glik filed a lawsuit claiming his free-speech rights had been violated.

This latest ruling is especially relevant to those who consider themselves citizen journalists. Before the court’s decision, members of the general public did not have the legal protection guaranteed by state shield laws enjoyed by credentialed journalists.

The court decision, in part, reads:

“Changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw. The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders with a ready cell phone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew, and news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.”

Although this decision does not clarify the much-debated discussion on who counts as “the press,” it does state that freedom of the press and speech guaranteed in the First Amendment no longer just apply to salaried reporters.

The decision also acknowledges that current technological advancements have made the line between citizen journalists and the mainstream press more difficult to define. This is beneficial to individuals who produce news, as well as news consumers.

The ruling also makes it clear that those reporters who sit at the top newspapers around the nation do not have different rights then those bloggers who pull out their cell phones to record their stories. It seems that most have forgotten that even well-compensated reporters are in fact, citizen journalists, who receive a paycheck to keep the public informed.

Another object lost on the typical news consumers is that when a newspaper goes under, it is not only those reporters who have lost their jobs who are affected. Entire communities are left without news coverage and without access to vital information. Stepping up to fill the void left when a local newspaper cuts back or closes are citizen journalists. They have proved that it no longer takes press credentials or a New York Times business card to break national news. Citizen journalists have captured their local congressman in scandals and reported on the tax increase a state senator hoped no one would find out about. They do the same job that “mainstream reporters” are doing without either a paycheck or a fancy office.

Citizen journalists are doing their part to keep our government officials accountable to the people. They do this by attending a town-hall meeting and reporting on the events or taking out a cellphone and videotaping what is viewed as injustice by the police. They are preserving democracy and making their hometowns better places for their families and friends. It is a thankless service that our country cannot afford to dismiss.

By allowing citizens the protection to videotape government officials without fear of arrest and prosecution, this ruling is a victory to anyone who supports journalistic freedom. We welcome any and all citizen journalists who feel the need to take action to better their communities.

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center is dedicated to providing investigative reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise, and technical support. For more information on the Franklin Center please visit www.FranklinCenterHQ.org.

About Jason Stverak

Jason Stverak is President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center is dedicated to providing reporters, citizens and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise and technical support.