A new bill in the Florida House of Representatives would make it illegal to approach a cop within 30 feet if the officer warns the person not to do so, effectively criminalizing the filming of law enforcement at any close proximity.
The legislation, filed by Rep. Alex Rizo (R–Hialeah), would make it unlawful to "interrupt, disrupt, hinder, impede, or interfere" with a police officer within that radius. It would also criminalize "indirect harass[ment]." Whether or not someone crosses that line would be up to the discretion of the officer, and would be punished by a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.
It is beyond debate that the public has a constitutional right to film police on the job. "There is a long line of First Amendment case law from the high court that supports the right to record the police," notes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital rights. "Federal appellate courts in the First…Third, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits have directly upheld this right."
One such ruling: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that Denver cops violated a man's First Amendment rights in 2014 when they surrounded him, confiscated his tablet without a warrant, and attempted to delete footage he took of the group beating a man during an arrest. (In a maddening turn, the officers still received qualified immunity and thus couldn't be sued over the incident, because the exact way the situation played out had not been carved into a previous court ruling.)
"It's hard to see such a blanket ban as anything but a targeted assault on First Amendment activity," says Ari Cohn, a First Amendment lawyer who works at TechFreedom, a think tank dedicated to technology issues. "Cops have long tried claiming that the act of filming them in itself obstructs their ability to do their job…and now that this argument failed, they are rather transparently trying to create a safe space from observation by the people they are sworn to serve."
House Bill 11 seeks to circumvent the Constitution, giving Florida officers a weapon to shut down public documentation under the guise of "harassment" that, as stated in the bill, does not have to be "direct." It remains unclear what would qualify as indirect harassment, though filming seems like a good candidate.
Rod Skirvin, president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, a law enforcement union, told the local ABC affiliate that "there is [no] problem with recording the police." There is a caveat in his view: "I don't think you should get in their face to do it."
Yet there is a distinction between a 30-foot distance and actually getting in an officer's face. That difference could easily determine whether or not someone is able to get any video of the cop whatsoever—a First Amendment-protected activity. Should a bystander choose to physically interact with a cop, the state can take comfort in the fact that assault is already illegal.
"A blanket 30 foot no-approach zone is completely unmoored from any government interest in ensuring that citizens don't obstruct police operations—that would prevent someone from standing across a typical street from a police officer!" adds Cohn. "That is a profound threat to the First Amendment. If the police don't want to be filmed or observed, they should get out of the public service field."
Police departments are notoriously opaque when it comes to sharing details on incidents that may or may not be laden with misconduct. None is more notorious than the Minneapolis Police Department's statement on the death of George Floyd, which acquitted then-Officer Derek Chauvin of any wrongdoing and cast it as a "medical incident." Bystander filming on the scene told a different story, and Chauvin has since been convicted of Floyd's murder.