Friday, October 5, 2007

You're gonna be in pictures

I popped over to The Daily Cardinal's website on a whim and read this article about police videotaping large events around town.

UW-Madison history professor James Donnelly raised some concerns regarding the constitutionality of this issue at the faculty senate meeting Oct. 1.

“If the police are videotaping any old student demonstration where the students are exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of assembly and free speech, this could be in some way intimidating,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly said he was alarmed by the lack of published policy clarifying the procedure for videotaping public events, and became concerned that the executive arm of the faculty senate was unable to review or determine whether the policy is “properly balanced.”

I've been to enough protest rallies, marches, political and sporting events to know full-well that police departments all over the country make a habit of filming such things. The first few times I noticed it, I admit to being somewhat shaken up. More than one of the plainclothes or uniformed cameramen made a point of looking all-too smug about what they were doing, assuming that it would make the protesters run and hide. It never did. And the protesters never turned violent (but sometimes the police did).

I've thought about it since and, heck, let them film. I've taped a lot of the events I've been to, have maybe even caught a few less-than-legal activities without knowing it. The thing is, when you start codifying who can and cannot film or photograph public events, you're scooting down a fairly slippery slope toward censorship.

Private events? Different story. But a bunch of people walking up and down a public street or gathered in a public forum? Fair game for pretty much anyone, and that's how it should be. Perhaps a more clear and concise policy is in order to make sure everyone knows that's the case, but that's the only reason I could get behind for such a move.

Now if there wasn't the issue of the recent proliferation of CCTV cameras, this would be a relatively cut-and-dry topic for me. But when does filming people in public places turn a bit sinister? When you're using the technology to stalk those people--and frankly, private citizens and law-enforcement officers on power trips are equally culpable. So maybe the difference is between permanently mounted surveillance cameras (creepy) and hand held, temporary recorders of a single event (generally less creepy).

I'm no scholar of privacy rights and such, so these are just off-the-cuff thoughts about the subject. But it's something worth thinking about, especially as the technology for watching people becomes more and more affordable, and more and more concealable.

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