ACLU Wrong, Police Right In Holding of Videotaping Teen
Khaliah Fitchette tells reporters her side of the story
The Star-Leger via YellowBrix
March 30, 2011
NEWARK – Khaliah Fitchette better hope she never trips and falls on a public sidewalk when somebody is walking nearby with a cell phone. I’m sure the “fotog” would love to record the embarrassing event – and maybe even put the video on YouTube.
It would be the passerby’s way of exercising his “First Amendment” rights.
Fitchette is the Newark teenager who got into trouble last March for taking a video of Newark police trying to help a man suffering from a medical emergency on a city bus. Police asked her to stop taping, and when she refused, they took her into custody.
The student was handcuffed, but not arrested. Police released her to her mother several hours later without pressing charges.
A thoughtful student would have realized that, “Hey, I really shouldn’t have videotaped that man in distress.” (The man had collapsed, and was unconscious.)
A thoughtful person would have reasoned, “Sure, it’s a public place, and like many teenagers, I like to tape my friends doing funny things. But if I fell on my face on a sidewalk or collapsed in a medical emergency, I sure would not want somebody taping me.” (Unlike my opening example, Fitchette did not put the video on YouTube.)
A thoughtful person would have further realized that, on reflection, “I wasn’t being very bright in defying the cops when they asked me to stop taping. The police have their job, and they’re mostly doing their best. They usually ask people to stand back, and I was interfering. Getting good pictures wasn’t the most important thing that day.”
It would have dawned on a thoughtful person that, “The cops understood – as I did not – that they were trying to protect the man’s privacy and save him from further embarrassment.”
A thoughtful person would have realized, “Now I understand why the police, angered by my defiance expressed by my refusal to stop taping, would have handcuffed me. I certainly did not enjoy being handcuffed and being held in custody for several hours. But,” a thoughtful person would have concluded, “I certainly brought that unpleasantness upon myself.”
Yes, a thoughtful person, upon reflection, would have understood all of that.
But Fitchette, now 17, is apparently not a thoughtful person. Instead of chalking it up as a lesson in maturity, the teenager sought revenge against the Newark police. Looking around for somebody to help her beat up on the Newark police, she and her mother found the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. (But it’s always possible that the ACLU found her.)
And so, the state chapter of the ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf against the city police, accusing them of illegally detaining her. The lawsuit was reported Tuesday on nj.com and in The Star-Ledger.
For the ACLU, this student’s wanting to get back at the police was like manna from heaven. Last September, the ACLU filed an earlier lawsuit (or here) against the Newark police, alleging all manner of police misconduct and calling for federal monitoring of the city police department.
But the ACLU’s earlier lawsuit has been out of the news recently, and what better way to revive public interest than Fitchette’s tale of woe. She’s the perfect foil to the police. Recently accepted to Cornell University, she’s looks like a nice girl. Reporters covering the press conference that announced the lawsuit described her as speaking in “a hushed tone” – obviously a modest, brilliant student being picked on by the police.
The ACLU, naturally, knows the “bash the cops” script well. A Seton Hall law professor working with the ACLU and the university’s Center for Social Justice, leveled the charge: “This is part of a fairly pervasive pattern and practice by the Newark Police Department,” said Baher Azmy, “to retaliate against individuals’ assertion of their First Amendment rights.”
That is utter nonsense, as the law professor and anybody with a lick of common sense ought to know. Go look it up: the First Amendment guarantees the right to speak your mind, practice your religion, and peaceably assemble.
It’s a far stretch to say that the First Amendment gives you the right to videotape the police trying to help somebody in distress, particularly if that officer asks you not to interfere with their official duties.
To be fair to our student, it is not illegal to videotape somebody in public. But when police arrive to help somebody in distress, they routinely ask people to get back, and out of the way. Sometimes, police “order” people to do that. With rubberneckers out of the way, first responders can do their job.
But what happens if a bystander defiantly refuses to cooperate, as Fitchette refused? To hear the ACLU tell it, I guess the police should just let her have her way. No sanctions.
“I take pictures of everything,” the demure teenager told reporters. “I didn’t think it was like a big deal, I guess.”
I guess not.
So why was Fitchette held for nearly three hours? Well, police processing is not instantaneous. Or maybe it took her mother that long to show up to get her.
But in the ACLU’s mind, any accusation of a violation of “First Amendment rights “ – no matter how frivolous – is always good theater.
It’s interesting to review the Star-Ledger videotape of Fitchette’s mother speaking at the press conference, available on YouTube. Nowhere does Kameelah Phillips mention the crucial point – that her daughter defiantly refused to stop taping, even after police asked her to stop.
I guess teenagers can do whatever they want. If the cops don’t like it – tough, we’ll call the ACLU.
Some have tried to cast this incident as so-called police misconduct, or else the police objecting to the public being a “watchdog” on their dealing with the public. But I keep thinking of that poor man on the bus, whose right to privacy in his moment of distress is more important than a teenager’s enthusiasm for taping “everything.”
So maybe there isn’t a universal “right” to videotape anything you feel like. Maybe Fitchette ought to re-think her actions. Maybe Fitchette ought to apologize to the Newark police. Maybe she ought to apologize to the man she videotaped.
Maybe the ACLU ought to forget their apparent vendetta against the Newark police.