A new law signed by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey bars anyone from shooting videos within eight feet of police activity if a law enforcement officer objects.
It’s a puzzling piece of legislation. It’s arguably unconstitutional, absolutely unnecessary and serves largely to inflame partisan viewpoints and suspicions.
“I agreed to run this bill because there are groups hostile to the police that follow them around to videotape police incidents, and they get dangerously close to potentially violent encounters,” wrote state Rep. John Kavanagh, who introduced the legislation. “The Tucson police officers who asked me to run this bill said that in their area some of these people videotape from 1 to 2 feet behind them, even when they’re arresting people.
On its face, that sounds reasonable. Certainly police should be able to do their work without members of the public breathing down their necks.
But of course, they already do. Police officers and other government responders already have the legal right to tell members of the public to stay a safe distance from an incident. I’ve been the editor of multiple newspapers, and the drill was always the same. If an officer asks you to move, you move. If a firefighter tells you to back away from the flames, you follow orders.
Under the First Amendment, the government — which includes police and firefighters — can’t tell you not to take photos or videos, but they can set reasonable limits on where the press and public stand while officers are investigating.
Kavanagh’s concerns were not limited to video-taking.
“Police officers have no way of knowing whether the person approaching is an innocent bystander or an accomplice of the person they’re arresting who might assault them,” Kavanagh wrote in defense of his legislation. “Consequently, officers become distracted and while turning away from the subject of the encounter, the officers could be assaulted by that subject or that subject could discard evidence or even escape.”
Again, police can tell anyone approaching to stand back. And yet Kavanagh decided Arizona needed specific legislation targeting those members of the press and public who are standing close by while exercising their First Amendment rights.
So what was the motive for this statute? We know that advocates for criminal justice are more closely monitoring the conduct of police officers. That, of course, has been driven by some particularly visible law enforcement mistreatment of African-American citizens. There’s no question that videos have captured misconduct that otherwise would have gone unreported.
Unfortunately, this unnecessary law undermines sincere efforts to ensure racial justice. Strong law enforcement supporters will applaud, citing the need to let officers just do their jobs. Those concerned about racial injustice will see this as the state of Arizona trying to cover up law enforcement misconduct.
Good legislation addresses a genuine public need in a thoughtful and balanced manner. This Arizona law falls well short of that.
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