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Ask Google: Am I Allowed to Film Police?

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Part illuminating, part entertaining and part terrifying, Google Suggest is a window into the collective search psyche of our fellow humans. This month: 

Suppose you’re out somewhere. You are strolling down the street, just minding your own business, when suddenly- you hear sirens. Policemen appear out of nowhere, wielding their billy clubs, ready to arrest a man further down the street from you. Unwittingly, your hand is reaching for your phone, while your thoughts run wild – think of all the hits this will get on YouTube! You’re just about to push record when the question occurs to you: Am I Allowed to Film Police?

OK, maybe this never actually happens to us – but Google Suggestions do not lie. Apparently, the rules and regulations with respect to documenting police are of great interest to many of us – ranging from socio-political protesters to sleazy disaster tourists.

To answer the question, some factors are important. First, it depends on where you are. Obviously, most countries where authoritarian regimes are in power, will not appreciate you filming their police, or anyone wearing uniforms, for that matter. So unless you are a war photographer or work for Amnesty International, leave that phone in your pocket.

Most European countries allow you to film and photograph whoever you want. In fact, the importance of the right to gather information, which often spurs public debate, has been repeatedly recognised by the European Court of Human Rights. There’s one catch: privacy rights. Photographing someone is one thing, publishing his or her picture without consent is another. Your right to publish someone’s picture without consent depends on its newsworthiness, take the Rodney King incident, for example, it justified the violation of privacy rights.

Canada and the UK also allow their citizens to film or photograph in public places; the police have no power to stop people from filming or photographing incidents. For the US it used to be different; documenting the police could result in fines and even jail time in a few states. Fortunately, times are changing, the right to film police in the performance of their public duties in a public space is a “basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment,” as was ruled by a Federal Court in the case of Glik vs. Cunniffe, August 26 2011. The US does not respect the same privacy rights as Europe, so publishing your videos or pictures online without consent will not get you in trouble. Push record. Upload to YouTube. Congratulations, you’ve just become a citizen journalist.

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