The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has won a $48,500 settlement from a lawsuit brought on behalf of man arrested for videotaping a University of Pittsburgh police officer.
“This settlement underscores the fact that one of the cornerstones of our constitutional democracy is the right to document the actions of our public officials,” said Glen Downey, from the law firm Healey & Hornack, P.C., who is handling the case as an ACLU of Pennsylvania cooperating attorney.
“Allowing officers to criminally charge people for peaceably recording the officer’s interaction with the public puts too much unfettered discretion in the hands of those very people who might well have reason to shield public eyes from their conduct,” he continued.
Elijah Matheny was arrested and charged with a felony violation of Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act in April 2009 after using his cell phone to record the detention and questioning of a friend by a police officer.
The Wiretap Act forbids audio recording without the consent of all parties involved, but the ACLU argued it does not apply to government officials in public settings.
The lawsuit claimed the officer violated Matheny’s First and Fourth Amendment rights by retaliating against him for lawfully gathering information about police activities.
The settlement ends a case that the ACLU lost in the U.S. District Court in Western Pennsylvania, but was expected to win in the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
All charges against Matheny were later dropped.
The ACLU has launched a “Know your rights” webpage for photographers in response to a number of incidents in which law enforcement officers have arrested people for recording video in public places.
“The right to record police is an important human-rights-protection tool, as the ongoing Twitter and YouTube postings from North Africa and the Middle East have shown, and it’s an equally important police misconduct deterrent in the United States,” said Witold Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director.