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But again, there is no new law in Maryland.
Treanor even finds an academic expert to comment on this non-existent trend of non-existent new laws. Anthony Peyronel, identified as a professor at Edinboro University, makes the predictable prediction that law enforcement groups will love this new law, while media organizations and civil libertarians are likely to hate it. Peyronel, whom Treanor presumably asked to appear on camera because he has some expertise on these issues, never questions Treanor's underlying premise. The expert ends up aiding Treanor and WJET in making Erie viewers more ignorant.
But it gets worse. The WJET report implies that it is either illegal to record on-duty cops, or it soon could be. But Pennsylvania, where the report aired, is one state where the courts have made it clear that it is perfectly legal to record on-duty cops. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that a man who surreptitiously recorded the state trooper recording him could not have violated the state's wiretapping law because the trooper had no expectation of privacy. And in 2005, a federal district court judge in Pennsylvania tossed the conviction of a man arrested for recording police from a nearby field. That judge added that his ruling wasn't even "a close case" and ordered the police officers to pay punitive and compensatory damages.
This isn't to say that people aren't still being arrested for recording cops in public—in Pennsylvania or elsewhere—or that cops aren't still threatening people who attempt to record them with cell phones or other devices. In fact, in spite of those court rulings, a Pittsburgh man was arrested just last year for recording police officers making an arrest. But his conviction was also overturned, and he's now suing the police for violating his civil rights.
This is precisely the point WJET misses, and it's where this particular local news reports veers from merely awful to dangerous. The law is settled in Pennsylvania. You have the right to record cops in public. The real story here is that when these arrests happen, it is the police who are violating the law, not the person holding the camera. In implying that the law isn't yet settled, and that it may soon be illegal to record cops in Pennsylvania, WJET not only botches the facts, it spreads misinformation about a critical issue affecting the relationship between the governing and the governed—the ability to keep public safety officers transparent and accountable.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.