As America comes to grips with the cold-blooded shooting of a South Carolina man by a police officer, and the fact that the only reason the cop has been charged with murder is that a witness filmed the event, it very disturbing that Texas Republicans are passing a bill, HB 2918, to ban the filming of police. Right away, anyone can see how this is a very alarming attempt to restrict the First Amendment rights of the press and concerned citizens, repressing the public’s ability to hold our police forces accountable for their actions. The need for oversight is making itself more clear as the tragedies that befell Walter Scott and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice happen more and more often.
The bill itself is on very shaky legal ground, as the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in 2011 that Simon Glik had every right to record police officers beating a suspect on his cellphone, and rejected the cops’ demand for immunity. In a similar case, the Supreme Court ruled in City of Houston v. Hill: “To oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” There is even a counter-bill, HB 1035, which would enshrine the right to film police actions and make it illegal for the police to tamper or repress that right, currently on the Texas docket in direct opposition to 2918.
Mr. Villalba claims that the bill aims to protect police officers from interference in contentious situations, but anyone can see it for what it truly is: a shield for police officers to behave and conduct themselves however they may feel appropriate, and when there are so many cases of police killings without trial or arrest cropping up across the nation, many with a very upsetting racial component, it is clear that this is not the kind of legislation that America needs.
The bill has received serious criticism from the largest police union in Austin because it rids the officers of the benefit of the doubt. While a few bad apples respond poorly in tense confrontations, the vast majority are hard-working men and women who put their lives at risk to protect their communities. If the police have nothing to hide, why would they need a law casting a veil over their actions? Relationships between the police and the policed are very tense in certain places, and the last thing honest law enforcement officers need is a bill to further deepen the suspicion and fear with which the citizens view them. Charley Wilkinson, director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, had this to say: “Texas law enforcement officers are highly trained and highly capable…”Let’s respect their experience and trust their judgment when it comes to enforcing the law and keeping the public safe. Any unneeded tinkering with the law is risky and unnecessary.”
The fresh pain of Walter Scott’s tragic murder in South Carolina should be more than enough to remind us all why the power of citizen journalism and our right to free speech is so important. It helps keep America honest. It’s hard to understand why Texas Republicans are trying to take that away from us.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.