Civil Liberties

Philly Aims to Disabuse Young Photographer of 'High-Minded Ideas' About Having Constitutional Rights

ACLU says Philadelphia police routinely harass and arrest people like Coulter Loeb for photographing them.


Via: Coulter Loeb/Facebook Photo by: Kyle Depew

Philadelphia is the latest locale to insist that photographing police performing their jobs is a crime, not protected activity under the First Amendment. The city is currently in a court battle with Coulter Loeb, who was arrested in July 2011 for taking pictures of a Philadelphia police officer. 

Loeb, then a 23-year-old student at the University of Cincinnati and photographer for the school newspaper, was staying with a friend in Philadelphia. While taking pictures in nearby Rittenhouse Square, he saw an officer "escorting a transient woman out of the park," as put it at the time. Loeb began taking pictures; the officer, George Gaspar Jr., told him to stop. Loeb refused, and was eventually arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Gaspar alleges that Loeb put his hand on the woman's shoulder and interfered with his police duties.

The charges were later dropped, but Loeb filed a suit against the city with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming his First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The case comes before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania this week. From AP: 

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Loeb, argue that Philadelphia police routinely harassed or arrested people trying to photograph or videotape them. Yet a judge ruled before trial that the federal appeals court in Philadelphia had not "clearly established" a First Amendment right to photograph police as of 2011.

"Whether the Third Circuit will eventually decide to follow what appears to be a growing trend in other circuits to recognize a First Amendment right to observe and record police activity is, of course, not for this court to decide, even if there are good policy reasons (that) adopt that change," U.S. District William H. Yohn Jr. wrote in a January pretrial order that covered two similar cases.

He therefore threw out Loeb's free-speech claim, leaving a jury to weigh the Fourth Amendment issues of false arrest and malicious prosecution. The jury is expected to get the case Friday after a weather-related day off.

Here's Judge Yohn's opinion throwing out Loeb's free speech claim—"despite the fact that every court to rule on the matter has now determined that there is a First Amendment right to record on-duty police, and that according to the American Civil Liberties Union, Philadelphia police have a history of wrongful arrests in this area," as Radley Balko writes. "Welcome to the world of qualified immunity, where the police are only required to follow 'well-established' laws." 

In an opening statement to jurors, Assistant City Solicitor John C. Coyle said that, "Like many other college students, [Loeb] has some very high-minded ideas about government, the role of government in interactions with its citizenry and the role of the media in observing those interactions." 

Oh, those wacky college kids with their notion that they have constitutional rights! Good thing Philly officials and police are here to disabuse Loeb of such radical beliefs. 

Here's Reason TV on the battle between photographers and police in Los Angeles: