Right to Record: Little Rock Case Affirms Need for Protecting Citizens’ Rights

On October 29 in Little Rock, a disagreement between an off-duty cop and a civilian at the upscale Ferneau restaurant erupted into a full-scale brawl—and a few days later, a lawsuit. The victim alleges police brutality. Nobody who wasn’t at the restaurant could have any idea what actually happened—except that a spectator videotaped the incident. The victim’s attorney released the video, seen at the top of this post, on YouTube.

The video tells us something, but it certainly doesn’t tell us everything: we can’t know whether we’re seeing a policeman use reasonable force—or going too far.

The fact is that even a video camera may not capture the whole story. The video gives us one perspective and some information, but it certainly won’t tell us what happened before filming started. Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words, but some incidents take more than a thousand words to explain (check out the weirdly compelling comments section at the Arkansas Times post on this affair, which contains a multitude of Rashomon-like multiple perspectives).

However, one thing this incident underscores is the immense importance of protecting citizens who record law enforcement actions in public. Regrettably, we are seeing a nationwide wave of arrests of citizens for doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights. As smartphones with cameras become cheaper and more pervasive, this issue will only grow more pressing.

Consider just a few recent examples:

Events like these place citizens in the uncomfortable position of having to sue the cops in order to protect their constitutional rights.

It is all too reminiscent of the situation earlier this year in which the Fulton County Quorum Court decided to prohibit filming of their public meetings and in which county Sheriff Buck Foley actually pushed the camera away in the middle of recording. It is a situation in which government agents, whose first official act is to swear obedience to the Constitution, clearly think of that swearing as a formality and the First Amendment as a bunch of abstract words without any relevance to their job duties.

This problem won’t be solved until legislatures decide to penalize government agents who block people from photography in any context where the photographer has a right to be.

Alleged Police Brutality Caught on Tape (KATV)

The War on Cameras (Reason.com) 

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6 thoughts on “Right to Record: Little Rock Case Affirms Need for Protecting Citizens’ Rights

  • November 10, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Great post and I totally agree on the need to protect the freedom of citizens to film and take pictures when our law enforcement officials are acting in public.

    Having watched the video of the Ferneau incident, the face punching is the one part that seems absolutely uncalled for. One of the comments on the Arkansas Times post by an alleged police officer agrees. I can’t verify if this person was an officer, but that would mesh with what I’ve always heard about appropriate police action.

    I will also add that I had an experience on Cinco de Mayo at El Porton in LR several years ago where I witnessed excessive behavior by an officer working security. A man eating at a table near ours was approached by the officer who was positioned near the door for looking at him “funny”. It escalated from there very quickly. So the idea of a cop handling something terribly from the beginning and igniting a situation isn’t too crazy to me.

  • November 13, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    The officer in the video had his mic hanging off his jacket when the video started. You got half the story and your jumping to conclusions. Sometimes punching someone in the face is the only option. It’s called a fight. I am a police officer I can assure you if you put your hands on me and then don’t comply with my lawfull orders rest I will punch you in your face. I am not your personal punching bag or sounding board.

    He asked this guy to leave 6 times then the guy came out of the restaurant and confronted the officer. Next time someone assaults you or someone you love, robs you, or commits a crime in front of you just call Mr.”do you know who my daddy is!?” in the video.

    The only reason someone videos a police officer is to be a jerk. It’s gets a little old when you are trying to do you job and some thug is sticking his phone camera in your face.
    How about you give the police the benifit of the doubt sometime.?

  • November 14, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    If you watch the video again you can see the officer drop the mic to lay hands on the guy, that would explain why it was hanging. Well I guess in addition to the Times comment your comment makes two opposing views from commenters saying they are officers. And none of us were there. So when and in what situation is face punching ok? I’ve heard two views now from alleged officers.

  • November 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    And that’s an honest question. I’m just an average citizen who tries, and mostly succeeds at staying out of trouble. But the incident in my first comment that I witnessed from mere feet away has colored my opinion a bit probably. Just like your having to put up with punks on the street has colored your view.

  • November 15, 2011 at 9:15 am

    I think that’s a fair question. If you were in a fight with someone when would it be okay for you to punch them in the face? Should I be held to a higher standard when my life or personal safety in on the line? The training matrix is only as much force as needed to effect arrest. I’m not a big guy and I’m getting a little long in the tooth so I try to get the upper hand as soon as possible. All that guy had to do, after he esculated the situation, was comply with the officers lawfull orders. I’ve been in law enforcement for almost 20 years and never had a complaint or a grievance filed against me.

  • November 15, 2011 at 11:27 am

    That’s a thing to proud of and I’m proud to have you serving our citizens. There’s a lot of good officers out there. I read a Dem-Gaz profile of an officer who recently retired after a few decades that was one of the better “good news” stories I’ve read in a long time.

    I guess what was in the first part of the video didn’t look like a fight to me, but I admitted that it was my thought on the video alone, and that it was not a certainty. Of course after reading some the Times blog comments it sounds like there are a lot of people on both sides who are so dug in they wouldn’t entertain any other possibility.


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