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Volokh Conspiracy

First Amendment Right to Record Child-Protection Visit to Your Home


From yesterday's Pennsylvania appellate decision in In re Y.W.-B., by Judge Carolyn Nichols, joined by Judges Mary Murray and James Gardner Colins:

Mother and Father are the parents of Y.W.-B., born in June 2012, and N.W.-B., born in January 2015 (collectively, Children). On May 31, 2019, DHS filed the instant petitions to compel Mother's cooperation with a home visit.

In its petitions, DHS [Department of Human Services] alleged, in part, that on May 22, 2019, it received a … report … that three weeks earlier, the family slept outside a Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) office, and that on May 21, 2019, Mother was outside the PHA office from 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. with a child. The petitions further stated that Mother told a Project Home outreach worker that she was not homeless, but that her previous residence was burned down. According to the petition, it was "unknown if [Mother] was feeding [Children while] she stood outside of the PHA office for extended periods of time." According to the petitions to compel, DHS workers attempted to assess the family's home on the same day it received the GPS report, but Mother and Father refused them entry to the home or access to Children.

The appellate court held that "DHS presented the trial court with probable cause to search Mother's home in support of its petitions to compel cooperation," but vacated a trial court order that "Mother is NOT to record or video" the visit. The court quoted Fields v. City of Philadephia (3d Cir. 2017), which had said:

The First Amendment protects the public's right of access to information about their officials' public activities. It goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw. Access to information regarding public police activity is particularly important because it leads to citizen discourse on public issues, the highest rung of the hierarchy of the First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection. That information is the wellspring of our debates; if the latter are to be uninhibited, robust, and wideopen, the more credible the information the more credible are the debates.

To record what there is the right for the eye to see or the ear to hear corroborates or lays aside subjective impressions for objective facts. Hence to record is to see and hear more accurately. Recordings also facilitate discussion because of the ease in which they can be widely distributed via different forms of media. Accordingly, recording police activity in public falls squarely within the First Amendment right of access to information. As no doubt the press has this right, so does the public.

The court went on to note, relying on Commonwealth v. Bradley (Pa. Super. Ct. May 5, 2020):

"The Third Circuit [in Fields], however, cautioned that all recording was not protected or desirable. 'The right to record police is not absolute. It is subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.'… The court, however, did not address the constitutional limits of this important First Amendment right because the defendants offered no justification for the action. Accordingly, the court noted that no 'countervailing concerns' existed to justify a departure from the general right to free speech under the First Amendment."

In Bradley, this Court addressed such "countervailing concerns" in a case in which the defendant challenged his conviction for defiant trespass for recording in the lobby of a police station in which there was a "no-filming" policy in place. The Bradley Court specifically concluded that the no-filming condition in the lobby passed constitutional muster, reasoning:

"The Commonwealth presents several countervailing concerns to [the a]ppellant's argument that he had an absolute right under the First Amendment to videotape in the Lobby. Principally, the Commonwealth highlights Corporal McGee's testimony that the police department's no-filming condition in the Lobby was based on several reasons: (1) preventing the disclosure of confidential information relating to ongoing investigations discussed within secure areas of the police department; (2) safeguarding the identity of confidential informants and undercover officers; (3) ensuring their safety by preventing the risk of retaliation against them; and (4) ensuring and preserving the privacy of crime victims. Indeed, the trial court found 'Corporal [ ] McGee testified with regard to numerous grounds upon which the no[-]filming policy was based, citing confidentiality and victim safety as fundamental components.' Thus, the restriction or condition at issue is reasonable.

"The no-filming condition applies to all members of the public who visit the Lobby. In other words, members of the public are granted a license to enter and remain in the Lobby, provided that they abide by the condition. Among other things, the no-filming condition ensures the integrity of police investigations and activity. The condition applies only to the Lobby and the interior of the police station, and not to areas outside of the police station, such as steps or entrances. Admittedly, it prohibits only the recording, taping, and photographing within the Lobby. The condition does not bar the use of parchment and quill in the Lobby. It, therefore, is a reasonable restriction under the First Amendment because it is narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, i.e., to ensure the safety, security and privacy of officers, informants and victims. Moreover, it prevents interferences with police activity. Accordingly, under the circumstances of this case, the recording or filming in the Lobby by members of the public is not a protected activity under the First Amendment." …

Fields recognized that "[a]ccess to information regarding public police activity is particularly important because it leads to citizen discourse on public issues, the highest rung of the hierarchy of the First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection." Although this case involves DHS officials rather than police, and official actions within Mother's home rather than in public, we conclude that First Amendment protections extend to restrictions on "the stock of information from which members of the public may draw" when discussing public issues. Therefore, we conclude that Mother's claim that the trial court improperly curtailed her right to record the DHS officials conducting a home visit is subject to intermediate scrutiny.

In the instant case, there was no evidence of any countervailing interests to support DHS's request for a no-recording provision. See [Transcript] (indicating that the trial court denied DHS's request to recall Ms. Richardson and granted DHS's request for a no-recording provision based on DHS's counsel's assertion that there were "videos, photography taken, posted on social media … that made her feel intimidated")….

[W]e acknowledge the trial court's concerns regarding the privacy interests of Children. However, our review is necessarily limited to the issue raised in this appeal, specifically, the right to record, under the First Amendment, DHS employees conducting an assessment of a home, and not Mother's posting of such videos on social media. {We add that there were no indications that Mother took videos containing images of Children or DHS employees interacting with the Children during her previous interactions with DHS.}

Therefore, under the specific circumstances of this case, and in light of Mother's and DHS's arguments, we conclude that DHS failed to establish that its request for a no-recording provision was reasonable. We emphasize that our holding does not make the right to record absolute, consistent with established case law, it is subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions….