QUESTION: legal rights for media

question / pregunta: 

Dear Radical Reference,

I'm trying to figure out what the Legal Rights are of a media person when documenting activism, protest and direct actions. Can the police arrest/detain you for trying to record? What legal defense can be used in the field when engaged in this activity if someone tries to prevent it or threaten someone recording? What are the legal dangers of recording violence against citizens and/or police brutality? Is it illegal to record faces in the crowd, etc?

Particularly in the following cities/states/reservations:
Chicago, IL
Phoenix, Arizona
South Dakota (Pine Ridge and other Reservations)
Washington, DC


possible answer

Freedom of the press is in the 1st Amendment. The First Amendment is available here with commentary and links to case law. Case law is cases where the law has been applied , there you can read what the judge said and how he they interpreted the law.

Editing by Jenna, who couldn't stop herself.

legal rights for media - Chicago

With regard to Chicago, you may have heard about Illinois's eavesdropping statute, which makes it a felony to audio record conversations unless "all parties to the conversation give their consent," with the felony charge escalating substantially if one of the parties is a police officer in the act of duty.

That act does not apply to *silent* video recording or taking photos; it's specifically regarding audio recording.

However, thanks to the ACLU, progress has been made even on that front. To get an idea of your rights in Illinois, see the ACLU's discussion of their case, which includes links to the court ruling as well as background information:

The ACLU also provides this "know your rights" resource for photographers.

Keep in mind that police may "legitimately" try to use other means to restrain or bar journalists from covering public actions. For example, if protesters trespass on private property and journalists follow, journalists may be arrested for trespassing as well, as happened during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. The First Amendment defense is relevant here, but that's not likely to prevent police from taking action in the first place--it's only a means to fight for release and for charges to be dropped. For some examples that may be helpful, see this collected archive of stories about journalists arrested during Occupy Wall Street protests.

legal rights media

The DOJ has ruled the people have the right to record the police in public:

As for Native American lands, the Bill of Rights apparently does not apply there since tribal sovereignty predates the Constitution:

Try CopWatch

Copwatch will probably be able to give you detailed information. Chicago Copwatch has a Facebook page and DC Copwatch has a page at

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