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In Victory For Free Speech, Judge Bars NYPD From Routinely Videotaping Lawful Protesters

The NYCLU today applauded a federal judge’s decision to stop the New York City Police Department from routinely videotaping individuals engaged in lawful political protest.

“The NYPD had transformed the atmosphere for political dissent in New York City with its omnipresent videotaping of every demonstration, regardless of the likelihood or suspicion of criminal activity,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director. “This decision should restore the expectation that New Yorkers can participate in lawful demonstrations without fear of being placed in political dossiers.”

This decision comes in the latest round of the decades-old federal case Handschu v. Special Services Division, which has resulted in a series of court orders regulating police surveillance of political demonstrations and activities.

The latest controversy focuses on the NYPD’s Interim Order 47, which expanded the police department’s surveillance practices by authorizing officers to take video and photographs of protestors on a routine basis and to maintain indefinitely the resulting footage and pictures. The NYCLU argued that this practice violates the agreement arising from the Handschu case. That agreement provides that police may investigate political activity only if there is some indication of unlawful activity on the part of the individual or organization to be investigated.

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman
explains the Handschu case.

The judge, Charles S. Haight, ruled that videotaping by police officers is a form of investigation, and that such investigation must comply with the standard established by the Handschu agreement. Judge Haight’s decision also rejects the city’s claim that the agreement is only enforceable when the constitution is being violated.

“Individuals who seek to engage in peaceful political protest should not have to do so at the price of having their pictures placed in a police dossier or a digitized data bank,” said Arthur Eisenberg, NYCLU Legal Director. “Yet the NYPD had been routinely videotaping peaceful protest events and retaining the videotape indefinitely. Judge Haight’s decision restores proper limits to that practice.”

The civil rights class is represented by Paul G. Chevigny of NYU Law School, Jethro M. Eisenstein, Martin R. Stolar and Franklin Siegel, who are joined on the motion by the NYCLU’s Eisenberg.

Click here to read the decision and here to read the NYCLU’s motion to enjoin the NYPD policy (PDF).

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