US state outlaws filming cops too close

Arizona will now charge those who record officers from closer than 8 feet away

Arizona has passed a law banning residents from filming police officers at close range, threatening misdemeanor charges for violators with a few exceptions.

Republican Governor Doug Ducey signed the bill into law on Friday, after it was introduced earlier this year by fellow GOP member John Kavanagh, a state representative who has insisted it is “unreasonable, unnecessary and unsafe” to film law enforcement from close-up.

Set to take effect in September, the measure makes it “unlawful for a person to knowingly make a video recording of law enforcement activity” from closer than 8 feet, though violators will be allowed one warning before they are penalized.

The new law has several caveats, however, as it permits individuals who are themselves subject to police questioning to film from a closer distance, as well as those in vehicles during traffic stops or other smaller enclosed spaces on private property, so long as they do not interfere with “lawful police actions.”

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The state government’s definition for “law enforcement activity” includes any questioning of a suspect, arrests, as well as cases in which officers are dealing with “an emotionally disturbed or disorderly person.”

According to New York University’s First Amendment Watch project, more than half of the US population lives in states where courts have recognized the right to film police, many concluding it is a constitutionally protected activity. Arizona is among those states, potentially setting the stage for legal challenges to the new law. 

In February, the National Press Photographers Association and 23 other civil liberties and journalistic organizations penned an open letter condemning the bill, which at the time proposed a larger 15-foot limit.

“We are extremely concerned that this language violates not only the free speech and press clauses of the First Amendment, but also runs counter to the ‘clearly established right’ to photograph and record police officers,” the letter said, adding that such a right had been codified countless times in court decisions around the country.

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