Lights, Camera, Arrested: Filming the Police Can be Risky Business

January 5, 2015

By: Brandon Pierce

Daniel Saulmon, charged with resisting, delaying, and obstructing an officer, spent four nights in a California jail—simply because he used a cell phone to film police officers on a public street.[1]  Fortunately, for Mr. Saulmon, his cell phone recording showed the exact opposite.  The video showed Saulmon being arrested only after he failed to provide the arresting officer with some form of identification.

Certainly that was not the first time a person attempted to film police officers in public.  The media has covered over and over and over and over again the developing trend of “citizen-journalists” using cell phones to film officers.  In many instances, police have barraged these citizens with demands to turn off their phones, have confiscated phones, and, like in Saulmon’s case, have arrested individuals who attempted to capture them on video.

Consider this: the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects our freedom of speech against governmental censorship.  Law enforcement officers are public officials, serving on behalf of the government.  So the right to film law enforcement without legal repercussions would seem like a legal no-brainer, correct?  Well, many courts are still split over that supposition, and are working to find some resolution.  The United States Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the issue, after denying certiorari to Anita Alcarez v. ACLU of Illinois in 2012.[2]


Why is this happening?

In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU) asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that very question.[3]  The ACLU’s issue arose as a result of Illinois’s 1961 Eavesdropping Act.[4]  The statute prohibited the use of an eavesdropping device to record or hear any oral communication without “the consent of any communicating party.”  Violating the statute constituted a Class 4 felony, punishable with one to three years of imprisonment.[5]  However, law enforcement was granted even greater protection: violation of the statute against a police officer upgraded the charge to a Class 1 felony.  Thus, the punishment became more severe with a possible four to fifteen year prison sentence.  The ACLU challenged the statute’s constitutionality.  Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit held that the Act’s prohibition of openly filming police officers in public “burdens First Amendment rights directly, not incidentally.”[6]  Therefore, it is perfectly legal for citizens within the Seventh Circuit to record police officers performing their duties in public.

By contrast, in 2010, the Third Circuit refused to recognize filming the police in public as a First Amendment right.[7]  In that case, Brian Kelly was arrested for filming a police officer during a traffic stop.  The Pennsylvania Wiretap Act was used to justify the arrest.  The Act prohibits “the interception or recording of a conversation without the consent of all communicating parties.”[8]  When confronted with this issue, the Third Circuit held that due to “insufficient case law,” there was no right to videotape a police officer during a traffic stop.

The Importance of Your Right to Film the Police

Ensuring transparency within the law enforcement is a powerful public interest.  Filming the police affords valuable evidence of government misconduct, which is becoming easier to do each day.  Today’s technology has created multiple avenues for citizens to stream police conduct via Internet, often times, in a matter of seconds.

However, in states where courts have ruled in favor of the right to lawfully film police officers, there still exists the misconception that it is illegal.  That misconception was so pervasive that the New York City Police Department had to be reminded through an official memo circulated to each of its officers.  According to Daily News, the memo reminds officers that “members of the public are legally allowed to record police interactions,” and that “intentional interference such as blocking or obstructing cameras or ordering the person to cease constitutes censorship and also violates the First Amendment.”

Considering the national attention regarding police conduct, the NYPD’s memo is extremely timely, as more people are starting to film police interactions.  The public is more informed about how police officers are executing their duties when citizens are allowed to film and distribute police videos.  Additionally, it promotes accountability and transparency within civilian and law enforcement relations.  Ultimately, when police officers know they are being filmed, officer misconduct is less likely to occur.  Therefore, a citizen’s right to film the police is just and necessary; its legality, however, is still being debated throughout the nation.  For now, filming police officers in public places remains a risky business.



[3] ACLU v. Alvarez, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 9303 (2012).


[5] Illinois Compiled Statutes (ILCS) – 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-45.

[6] ACLU v. Alvarez, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 9303 (2012).

[7] 622 F.3d 248, 262 (3d Cir. 2010).

[8] 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5703.

The Black and White of What It Means to Be “Beautiful”

January 1, 2015

By: Tierra Ragland

In a world where European standards of beauty are the status quo, other standards of beauty are commodified, fetishized, or considered less than.  There have been countless research, articles, books, and documentaries published on the negative impact that European standards of beauty have had on people of color around the world.

Darker skinned Black women are “less classically beautiful” according to a September 18, 2014 article in the New York Times.  The article referenced Oscar nominee Viola Davis, who portrays defense attorney Annalise Keating on the new Shondaland drama “How to Get Away With Murder.”  Davis was described by the New York Times as “older, darker-skinned, and less classically beautiful” than Scandal star Kerry Washington and for that matter, Halle Berry.  This characterization of Davis is problematic because it assumes that there is only one standard of beauty for Black women.  The quote also addresses the historical social problem of using biracial women as the epitome of Black Beauty.

Viola Davis, star of "How to Get Away with Murder."

Viola Davis, star of “How to Get Away with Murder.”

To properly discuss the consequences of the statement made by the New York Times, we must discuss the history of what it means to be considered a beautiful Black woman in America.  Throughout history, it has been written into law that Black people in America are to be socially and legally less than White people in America; from slaves being counted as 3/5th of a person to Blacks not having the right to vote, there has always been systematic superiority.  Even with the massive legal strides that have since been gained by the Black community, the societal consequences of hundreds of years of socially-stratified inequality still remain.

The Doll Test

In the 1940s, psychologists Dr. Kenneth and Dr. Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known colloquially as “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.  For this test, four dolls, all identical except for their skin color, were used to test the racial perceptions of children between the ages of three and seven.  The children were asked to identify the races of the doll and which color they preferred.  A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to them.  The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem.  Dr. Clark testified as to the results of his study in Brown v. the Board of Education.  The doll test has been recreated in several documentaries and studies with no change in the responses of the children or the overall results of the test.  The statements made about Viola Davis in the New York Times article illustrate how even in 2014, those same racial preferences found in the doll test still remain.

Brown Paper Bag Test

A ritual once practiced by some historically Black colleges (HBCUs), social organizations, and historically Black sororities and fraternities involved not admitting anyone into the group whose skin tone was darker than a brown paper bag.  A brown paper bag was used because the color of the bag was considered the cut off for light skin and any skin tone darker than the bag was considered too dark or undesirable.  HBCUs, sororities, and fraternities no longer use the brown paper bag test.  However, comparing Black women on a spectrum that begins with Halle Berry, and ends Viola Davis as “less than classically beautiful” is exactly the same practice as the brown paper bag test.

Halle Berry

Halle Berry

The brown paper bag test is part of the larger social construction known as colorism.  Alice Walker defined colorism, in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”  Colorism prevails intra-racially and interracially for the same reasons: the dominance of Eurocentric beauty ideals, external racism, and internalized racism by Blacks.  The 2014 Documentary Dark Girls explores colorism among Black women in America and around the world.  The documentary depicts the social, psychological, and emotional experience of darker skinned Black women.

Society has yet to embrace the radical idea that we can all be beautiful.  Black women come in a variety of shades and a variety of social, cultural, and historical implications on what it means to be beautiful.  The media produces thousands of images of unattainable and unrealistic beauty ideals, which become even more problematic when you are the “wrong skin color.”  Yet it is up to us to begin realizing that there is no “classically beautiful,” and start embracing each and every person for the beautiful individual that they are, both inside and out.

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