By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A civil liberties group said on Thursday it would appeal a ruling by a federal judge in Philadelphia that the U.S. Constitution only protects a person's right to videotape police activity when the images are intended to send a message.
Using phones and cameras to record police making arrests or controlling crowds has become the primary way to ensure officers are held responsible for possible misconduct, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said.
"The ability to criticize and hold accountable our public officials is critical to the First Amendment," Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the state's chapter of the ACLU, said in a phone interview.
In an opinion released last Friday, U.S. District Judge Mark Kearney said taping or photographing police in public only enjoyed First Amendment protection when it was clearly intended to convey a message, such as criticizing the police.
"We find there is no First Amendment right under our governing law to observe and record police officers absent some other expressive conduct," he wrote.
Videotaping police officers has become a key tool for civil rights activists in recent years, fueling public outrage over the fatal police shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland and the chokehold death of Eric Garner on New York's Staten Island, among other cases.
The decision stemmed from two lawsuits filed in 2014.
One involved a "legal observer," Amanda Geraci, who videotaped the arrest of a protester during an anti-fracking rally. She charged that an officer physically restrained her and refused to let her use her camera.
In the second case, Richard Fields, a college student, took a photo of about 20 officers standing outside a house party, saying later he thought it "would make a great picture." He was handcuffed and cited for obstructing a public passage.
In a statement, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said: "Improving interactions between police and public is paramount. Whether videotaping the police is a First Amendment right is an issue for the courts, and we'll see how the rest of this case works out."
Roper said several federal appeals courts elsewhere in the country had concluded the taping of police activity was constitutionally guaranteed. The ACLU's challenge will be heard by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
The U.S. Department of Justice previously said in court filings that recording public police activity was protected by the First Amendment.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Peter Cooney)