Photo credit: Anthony Brown

Months after a landmark federal appeals court ruling that recording police in public is protected by the First Amendment, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has settled two lawsuits against the city of Philadelphia filed by two activists claiming police retaliated against them for filming officers.

The ACLU announced the settlements Tuesday, noting that the two cases, filed by a police watchdog group member and a Temple University student, were part of a series of five lawsuits brought against the city by the ACLU on behalf of people who were arrested, cited, or restrained by Philadelphia police for photographing or video recording them on the job.

The city agreed to pay plaintiffs Amanda Geraci and Rick Fields a combined settlement of $250,000, including attorney fees, according to the ACLU.

“The best tool for police accountability available today is the smartphone in someone’s pocket,” Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement Tuesday. “We’re grateful to our clients for enduring years of litigation to protect this vital First Amendment freedom.”

Mike Dunn, deputy communications director for the city of Philadelphia, said the settlement was in the best interest of the city.

“Since 2012 the Police Department has had a directive that establishes clear guidelines for allowing members of the public to record officers while discharging their official duties,” Dunn said in an email. “The Police Department’s policy was initiated after the Department of Justice opined on the issue, and five years before the Third Circuit recognized this right.”

He added, “The recent settlement of two lawsuits with the ACLU was in the best interests of the city, despite the fact that the department has had this policy in place since 2012.”

Geraci, the watchdog group member, alleged she was pinned against a pillar by a police officer after she tried to film the arrest of a protester at a 2012 anti-fracking demonstration outside of the Philadelphia Convention Center.

Temple student Fields was a sophomore in 2013 when he photographed police breaking up a house party across the street. An officer allegedly noticed him taking the photo and asked him whether he “like[d] taking pictures of grown men.”

After refusing to leave, Fields was arrested, his phone was confiscated, and he received a citation for obstructing a public passageway. The charges were dismissed when the officer did not appear at a court hearing.

In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned a district court ruling that had dismissed Geraci and Fields’ claims despite an acknowledgement in the Philadelphia Police Department’s own policy prohibiting officer retaliation against First Amendment-protected activities.

“We ask much of our police,” Third Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro wrote in the court’s opinion. “They can be our shelter from the storm. Yet officers are public officials carrying out public functions, and the First Amendment requires them to bear bystanders recording their actions. This is vital to promote the access that fosters free discussion of governmental actions, especially when that discussion benefits not only citizens but the officers themselves.”

The ruling covers photographing, filming and audio recording, but there are limits to when recording can be done.

“We do not say that all recording is protected or desirable. The right to record police is not absolute,” Ambro added, noting that there are restrictions if, for example, the recording interferes with an investigation or exposes a confidential informant.

Despite the limits, the decision was a significant victory for police reform advocates in a time when calls for law enforcement accountability have been continuously mounting. The settlements too will likely give momentum to the reform cause.

“We hope that these cases will serve as a warning to any other police force that retaliates against people who record officers as they carry out their duties,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in Tuesday’s statement. “There are consequences for violating people’s constitutional rights.”