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Live-Streaming Traffic Stops Legal Under First Amendment: Court

A federal appeals court ruled that live-streaming traffic stops is protected speech under the First Amendment after a North Carolina man challenged police claims that doing so is barred for safety reasons. “Recording police encounters creates information that contributes to discussion about governmental affairs. So too does livestreaming disseminate that information, often creating its own record. We thus hold that livestreaming a police traffic stop is speech protected by the First Amendment,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled Tuesday. Dijon Sharpe, who sued the town of Winterville, N.C., and one of its police officers after he was threatened with arrest in 2018 for streaming a traffic stop to Facebook Live, still faces obstacles, the Washington Post reports.

The court said the officer who told Sharpe to stop recording is protected from the lawsuit by qualified immunity, because at the time of the incident “it was not clearly established that the First Amendment prohibited an officer from preventing a passenger who is stopped from livestreaming their traffic stop.” Sharpe must prove that the officer was following a town policy, not his own interpretation of the law, to continue the suit. And that policy could survive as a restriction on speech, the court said, if it’s explained as narrowly tailored to serious government interests. Precedents limiting liability by the officer and the town “have been criticized for being atextual, ahistorical, and driven by policy considerations,” the court wrote. “But they are also binding.” The case was the first time a circuit court has ruled on whether passengers can be blocked from recording police during traffic stops or on whether live-streaming is different from merely recording.


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