Recording police officers could soon become a crime in Texas if one Lone Star Republican gets his way.
State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) introduce a bill last week that would make it a misdemeanor offense to record police activity within 25 feet of an officer. The bill makes exceptions for members of the corporate media, including reporters from magazines, newspapers and FCC-licensed radio and television stations. It would also exempt those who work “with an organization … engaged in law enforcement activities.”
If passed, the bill would almost certainly face constitutional challenges. It would go against a precedent established in a First Circuit Court of Appeals case in which an appellate panel found that a man was protected under the Constitution when he recorded a police officer from a mere 10 feet away.
Although Texas is part of the Fifth Circuit — and, therefore, isn’t held to the ruling of the First Circuit court — judges routinely rely on cases with established precedent when deciding upon an issue.
Villalba told critics on Twitter that his bill is not aimed at trying to suppress a citizen’s right to document police activity, only that it orders citizen documentarians to “stand back a little so as not to interfere with law enforcement.”
But citizens aren’t buying it, especially with recent cases in which cellphone video captured by onlookers helped set the narrative in controversial police encounters.
“We want to keep the option of video(taping police) for mutual safety, justice and accountability on the table,” audio designer Levon Louis, a Texas resident, told Villalba on Twitter.
Villalba remains adamant that his bill “is meant to protect officers, NOT restrict the ability to keep them accountable.”
If anyone is cited or arrested under Villalba’s law, they could draw upon two key piece of evidence in their defense: Letters written by the U.S. Department of Justice last year urging a U.S. District Court judge in Maryland to “find that both the First and Fourth Amendments protect an individual who peacefully photographs police activity on a public street.”
If passed by lawmakers and signed into law, Villalba’s proposal would take effect in September.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.