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NYC Judge Restricts Surveillance

Published by Jennifer on February 19, 2007 8:04 AM

2007 has been a controversial year for video surveillance in New York City. First, the controversial New York Civil Liberties Union report on public video surveillance and the release of the Surveillance Camera Project, and Katherine Mangu-Ward's counter-editorial on the benefits of public video surveillance.

Last week, a federal judge ruled that public surveillance conducted by police officers during protests and other public gatherings as an unconstitutional violation of free speech.


New York City has a long history of monitoring the public through sporadic video surveillance: police officers have recorded public protests from ubiquitous white vans for years, gatherings running the gamut from memorials to bikers killed in traffic, political protests, even recording the areas surrounding the World Trade Center after the 1993 bombings. Officers have also performed covert surveillance, going so far as to cry out against police in memorials and protests. This type of public monitoring has been permitted, and in some cases (especially in the backlash of intense public security immediately following the 9/11 attacks) encouraged, since the 1960s and 1970s. The NYPD were even granted permission to record public, religious and political gatherings in 2003.


However, Judge Chales Haight Jr. ruled on February 15 that the simple gathering of people in public places does not alone necessitate recording or video surveillance, and such surveillance by the police or any other authorities is a violation of the gatherer's First Amendment rights. Surveillance, Haight ruled, should only be conducted if there is reasonable suspicion that illegal activity will occur. He also warned that the NYPD must change its video surveillance protocol or face charges.


One interesting aspect of the ruling is the differentiation of public surveillance conducted by officials or public servants and recordings taken by public citizens. From the New York Times article:


"[Haight ruled] that permission “cannot be stretched to authorize police officers to videotape everyone at a public gathering just because a visiting little old lady from Dubuque (to borrow from The New Yorker) could do so. There is a quantum difference between a police officer and a little old lady (or other tourist or private citizen) videotaping or photographing a public event.”

This distinction between public and private surveillance has been pivotal in the recent debate over security cameras in public places, which has mostly hinged on how law enforcement monitors and uses public and private surveillance tape to convict criminals. This ruling also establishes precedent in a recent trend over surveillance in the US, which has a history that is spotty at best. While popular for private businesses like retail and restaurants, public surveillance used by law enforcement has not been received well. Judge Haight's ruling sets the idea that surveillance may be essential or useful, but must be carefully monitored so to both protect and serve.

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