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Federal court shoots down bill that would have criminalized the filming of public law enforcement encounters

In a legal battle that sparked debates on the boundaries of citizens' rights and law enforcement's authority, Arizona House Bill 2319, sponsored by Senator John Kavanagh, was almost defeated in federal court. 

The bill, which would have made it unlawful to film certain encounters with public law enforcement, was declared unconstitutional, safeguarding the right to film government officials. The bill would have made it a class three misdemeanor to film public law enforcement encounters within 8 feet.

Prior to the ruling, the bill was passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and it was signed by former Governor Doug Ducey on July 6, 2022.

Arizona State University Clinical Professor of Law Kimberly Holst said there were important precedents regarding the case, citing Arizona Broadcasters Association v. Brnovich (2022), where the federal district court established that individuals have the right to record law enforcement while they are on duty in public places. 

"The Arizona House Bill was considered a content-based restriction on protected speech or expression because it specifically targeted the recording of police officers. Such content-based restrictions would need to pass strict scrutiny in order to be constitutional. Strict scrutiny is a very high standard demanding that the legislation serves a compelling state interest and is narrowly crafted to serve that interest," said Holst. 

In the case of House Bill 2319, the court found it unlikely to pass the standards of strict scrutiny. Allowing the legislation to stand would have caused irreparable harm, leading to the court's decision to grant a restraint against its enforcement, according to Holst.

Professor of Law Paul Bender echoed Holst's sentiment, emphasizing that if the government wants to limit people's freedom of expression, there must be a convincing reason, and the restriction should be precisely tailored to address that specific concern. 

“While there may be a compelling reason to ban some close-up filming of police activity in specific situations where it interferes with necessary police operations, banning all such close-up filming without discretion does not serve a compelling interest. Close-up filming can be essential to accurately inform the public about police activities," said Bender. 

Amid the discourse surrounding Arizona House Bill 2319, law enforcement professionals, including Homeland Security intern Makoa Gorospe, shed light on the bill's intent from an officer safety perspective. 

"The first important thing about this bill was officer safety," said Gorospe. "If you're looking from an officer safety perspective, you need that distance because you don't know if that person is a threat or not." 

Gorospe’s perspective underscores the concerns law enforcement professionals often grapple with regarding their safety while performing their duties. 

In the era of increased accountability due to widespread cell phone use, the verdict reaffirms the First Amendment's protection of citizens' freedom of speech and expression, even in the presence of laws attempting to limit these rights.

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