NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

March 29, 2012

Court ruling helps strengthen citizens' rights

Boston taxpayers are paying a price — $170,000 to be exact — for violations of a citizen's right to observe and report on actions by members of the city's police department.

It's an unfortunate cost for taxpayers, but the end result is good — a strengthening of case law related to the public's rights to observe and document the actions of the government.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported this week that a settlement had been reached in the case of Simon Glik, an attorney who in October 2007 was confronted by police officers after taking out his cellphone to record their arrest of a teen on Boston Common.

Charges of illegal wiretapping, aiding the escape of a prisoner and disturbing the peace filed against Glik were thrown out last August by the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The two officers who arrested Glik were subsequently disciplined by the department for exercising "unreasonable judgment." And, finally, this week, Glik, who had filed suit against the city for violation of his civil rights, agreed to drop the matter in exchange for $170,000 to cover damages and legal fees.

The most critical outcome of this case, however, was not the cash settlement, but rather the court's earlier affirmation of a citizen's right to record the actions of police in a public place.

This has wide implications for both citizens and the press. The ability to videotape and photograph public events has grown exponentially with the advent of cellphone technology, and even in this day and age, it is not uncommon for police to usher citizens and photographers away from incidents.

"The First Amendment includes the freedom to observe and document the conduct of government officials, which is crucial to a democracy and a free society," Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the ACLU, noted. "We hope that police departments across the country will draw the right conclusions from this case."

We arm police and give them the power of arrest in order to maintain the public's safety and keep the peace. But along with that authority comes a responsibility to respect citizens' basic rights.

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