Judge Restricts New York Police Surveillance of Public Spaces

A federal judge ruled that the police must stop the routine videotaping of people at public gatherings. Reversing (and clarifying) an earlier ruling, the judge stated that such public surveillance is allowable only if there was an indication that unlawful activity may occur. From the NYTimes report:

Four years ago, at the request of the city, the same judge, Charles S. Haight Jr., gave the police greater authority to investigate political, social and religious groups.

In yesterday’s ruling, Judge Haight, of United States District Court in Manhattan, found that by videotaping people who were exercising their right to free speech and breaking no laws, the Police Department had ignored the milder limits he had imposed on it in 2003.

Citing two events in 2005 — a march in Harlem and a demonstration by homeless people in front of the home of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — the judge said the city had offered scant justification for videotaping the people involved.

“There was no reason to suspect or anticipate that unlawful or terrorist activity might occur,” he wrote, “or that pertinent information about or evidence of such activity might be obtained by filming the earnest faces of those concerned citizens and the signs by which they hoped to convey their message to a public official.”

While he called the police conduct “egregious,” Judge Haight also offered an unusual judicial mea culpa, taking responsibility for his own words in a 2003 order that he conceded had not been “a model of clarity.”

A win for the preservation of “privacy in public,” but this also shows how important is it to ensure such rights are made explicit, and not left to be interpreted by those who hold the power of surveillance.

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