First Amendment scores a win in federal court

The First Amendment won a round in US District Court this week with a ruling that a 50-year-old Massachusetts law was never intended to apply to the recording of police or other government officials by activists or journalists.

The ruling narrows considerably the scope of a law passed long before the invention of cell phones and the window they can now provide on potential wrongdoing by public officials. Massachusetts’s wiretap law prohibits virtually any secret audio recordings, even in public settings. It is one of only 11 states with similar laws.


But a ruling issued Monday by US District Court Judge Patti Saris found, “On the core constitutional issue, the Court holds that secret audio recording of government officials, including law enforcement officials, performing their duties in public is protected by the First Amendment, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.” And so, she added, the law “is unconstitutional in those circumstances.”

The court case paired two challenges to the law — one by two Boston activists fighting for the right to record police actions, even covertly, and a second filed against the Suffolk County district attorney’s office by Project Veritas, founded by conservative gadfly James O’Keefe. Project Veritas is noted for its video sting operations against welfare offices and, in one instance, its failed attempt to entrap some Washington Post reporters.

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Yes, sometimes in First Amendment cases the “heroes” may come from the ranks of those who make mainstream journalists squeamish. That ought not, however, diminish the worth of the resulting victory. (Read more…)