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Is it OK to film the police?

Updated: November 30, 2021

This hypothetical case study was developed in partnership with the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

Before class (30 minutes)


Class time needed

30 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

  • Understand when, where and under what circumstances people have a right to take photographs or record video of law enforcement.
  • Summarize the historical role of visuals in holding the powerful accountable.
  • Develop a personal plan for dealing with a similar situation professionally.

Hypothetical situation

You are a news videographer with a local TV station. Your assignment is to spend the day with a Black Lives Matter activist, getting B-roll of a normal day in his life.

On the day you are filming him, you’re riding in the front seat of his car when you both notice police lights just outside a mall and several police vehicles. The activist pulls into the parking lot and sees a young Black man in cuffs on the ground. He quickly parks and hops out of the car, walking briskly toward the group of officers who are standing on the sidewalk in front of the mall’s main entrance. You follow with your professional camera gear (which is marked with your station’s call letters) rolling and notice that there is also a woman standing outside filming the scene with her cell phone.

The activist asks the police, “What’s going on here? Why is this young man on the ground in handcuffs?”

An officer nearby turns to the activist and tells him to mind his own business. The activist persists in questioning the officers, who to this point haven’t seemed to mind the cameras. As tensions rise, one officer yells out, “You need to turn your cameras off.”

You continue rolling, as does the woman with the cell phone. You see two officers consult with each other and then walk over to the handcuffed person and bring him to his feet before marching him into the mall.

You follow with your camera rolling, as does the woman with the cell phone. The activist is right ahead of you, continuing to ask the officers why the young man is being detained.

As soon as the party is within the confines of the interior of the mall, the officer again looks at you and yells, “Turn the camera off or I will arrest you all!” At that moment another officer uses a Taser on the cuffed suspect after he apparently tried to run away.

The woman with the cell phone appears to turn her camera away, and the activist pleads with you to please turn your camera off.

Discussion questions

  1. What First Amendment right(s) are in play here?
  2. Do you turn your camera off when the activist asks you to do so? What is your rationale for leaving it on or turning it off?
  3. Did you have a right to film the police when you were outside? What about when you were inside the mall?
  4. What should you do if a law enforcement officer tells you to stop filming?
  5. What about if they tell you to hand over your card, film or equipment?

For further reading

Supreme Court could review case involving filming of police using force (Free Speech Center)

Photography and First Amendment (Freedom Forum Institute)

NPPA Police Model Guidelines (National Press Photographers Association)

Privacy (Free Speech Center)