A new bill around recording the police in Texas is causing waves with photographers, who believe their right to record is being taken away. And it basically is.
The bill (HB 2918, if you’re wondering) was introduced last Tuesday by Representative Jason Villalba, and would prohibit any filming of police within 25 feet—100 feet if you have a handgun. Any violations would result in a Class B misdemeanor. PetaPixel features a full copy of the proposed bill, which describes the behavior as “an interruption, disruption, impediment, or interference that occurs while a peace officer is performing a duty or exercising authority imposed or granted by law…”
Rep. Villalba was quick to respond to those worrying on Twitter that this bill wouldn’t make filming “illegal,” claiming it would just give law enforcement officials room to breathe while they work.
HB 2918 is meant to protect officers, NOT restrict the ability to keep them accountable. It DOES NOT prohibit filming. @TMPALegislative
— Jason Villalba (@JasonVillalba) March 12, 2015
The problem with this line of thinking is that often it’s not the person filming in control, it’s the police officer. And if there’s a buffer zone around the officer what happens as they move towards the photographer, which is common, even when they were well within their rights to be there and documenting the scene? That was certainly the case for Dominic Holden, a reporter at Seattle’s The Stranger, a year and a half ago:
Two months ago, I wrote about photographing a large group of police officers who were surrounding a man downtown and questioning him loudly. I’m a reporter, so I usually stop to observe major police activity when I see it. But this time, King County sergeant Patrick “K.C.” Saulet charged up and threatened to arrest me when I took pictures of officers. He said that if I didn’t leave the the city sidewalk and the nearby county transit plaza—both of which are public property—I would go to jail, even though standing on public property like that is legal, and taking photos of officers is legal. I had been keeping my distance from the cops, standing back from their activity.
Though it made for a scary experience for Holden, he’s aware that this was “not a big case,” given the track record of the Seattle Police Department in particular. Even in the scope of the Texas law, Holden would be well within his rights given the exceptions in HB 2918 for “news media employees acting in the scope of their employment.” Specifically those employed by a FCC licensed radio, television, or print outlet.
But where does that leave the increasing number of citizen journalists? Freelancers? Anyone with a cell phone who believes they’re witnessing an injustice? The law as is isn’t nimble enough to protect those people from any sort of ill will from police officers, and as Todd Belcore noted in a post for The Shriver Brief last year, that community is more common than you may think:
We cannot forget how violence, and the fear of violence by the police or actual criminals, imprisons people in their homes and communities and deprives people of the justice they are to be guaranteed. Many minority communities, who experience intrusive, abusive, and often illegal police practices, essentially live under a different and far less protective Constitution.
This law might not come out and say it, but it’s more limiting than Rep. Villalba will admit. Officers, while possibly camera shy, aren’t afraid to saunter up to photographers and ask them to switch off their equipment, which seems like a major loophole in any sort of buffer-bill for recording law enforcement. With any luck Texas legislature will have a better focus than Villalba.