French law could limit sharing police videos

Allegations of police brutality aren’t exclusive to the United States.

And neither is the growing trend of passersby — often random members of the public — stopping to video record police stops and arrests.

We are blessed in America with liberties that our founders had the foresight and fortitude to create, granting us rights that are unfathomable to citizens in many countries. They include things like photographing and video-recording public activities.

Now, even France, (a representative democracy like most Western-style governments) is challenging that freedom.

The Associated Press reported last week the French parliament is considering a new security bill that would make it illegal to publish images of police officers with intent to cause them harm, amid other measures.

French activists fear the proposed law will deprive them of a potent weapon against abuse — cellphone videos of police activity — threatening their efforts to document possible cases of police brutality, especially in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods, the AP reports.

The draft bill has prompted nationwide French protests. Tens of thousands of people marched last weekend in Paris to reject the measure, including families and friends of people killed by police.

Opponents believe the bill will have an even greater impact on people who aren’t journalists, especially immigrants living in neighborhoods where relationships with the police are often tense. Images posted online have been key to denouncing cases of officers’ misconduct and racism in recent years, they argue.

The law does not specifically ban recording the images. Rather, it bans using the images to lead to officer harm.

In America, of course, the Constitution and its amendments guarantee freedoms not spelled out in other countries.

Specifically, legal challenges to America’s Fourth Amendment, which protects our right to privacy, have shaped interpretations of the law now used largely by journalists, videographers and photojournalists.

The U.S. Supreme Court uses a legal test to determine “expectation of privacy” to help define when Fourth Amendment privacy protections apply. Journalists generally apply that rule, which states there is no reasonable expectation to privacy in a public place.

That means if a police officer — or anyone, really — is visible in public, then photographers and videographers may photograph or video-record you, and then publish it with no need for permission. On challenges to the amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined doing this is not an invasion of privacy.

So, in America, if a newspaper photographer (or anyone — it need not be a journalist) is standing on a public street shooting photos of a man who, while standing on his private property is clearly visible from that street, the man would have little right to demand the photographer leave or stop snapping photos.

Then, thanks to the First Amendment that guarantees press freedom, we generally are permitted to publish those photos or share the videos on our website.

If the French draft law is approved, it’s that second step that can be deemed illegal.

Abdoulaye Kante, a French police officer with 20 years of experience, tried to explain the legislation.

“The law doesn’t ban journalists or citizens from filming police in action. … It bans these images from being used to harm, physically or psychologically,” he argued. “The lives of officers are important.”

Let me be clear, physical harm of police is never OK.

But laws that spell out how images may be used can become a slippery slope.

Indeed, the law would limit the sharing of videos like the one that went viral showing the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

Now, that’s a problem.

France’s human rights ombudsman, Claire Hedon, is a prominent critic of the proposed law, which she said involves “significant risks of undermining fundamental rights.”

“Our democracy is hit when the population does not trust its police anymore,” she said.

That’s so true. And once trust is lost, it’s hard to regain.

As I see it, that’s why allowing the press freedom to do its job is an important part of the process.



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