The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed a federal lawsuit against the Boston Police Department and the Suffolk District Attorney on behalf of two civil rights activists who said they have feared retaliation after openly making recordings of police officers.
In the suit filed Thursday, the organization said it wants the court to affirm the rights of civilians to openly record police officers in the state, and to also allow the public to secretly record officers.
“Some people feel afraid to exercise their right,” said Jessie J. Rossman, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “In certain situations they don’t feel safe based on past experiences. Their rights under the constitution are being chilled by that fear.”
Plaintiffs Eric Martin, of Jamaica Plain, a member of Boston Cop Watch, and Rene Perez, of Roxbury, who co-teaches Know Your Rights trainings about recording the police, said in the complaint that they “believe secret recording is sometimes the only means to safely gather and disseminate accurate information about police actions in the community.”
In 2011, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that civilians have the right to openly record or videotape police in public. The ruling followed the arrest of attorney Simon Glik, who was charged with violating the state’s wiretap law after he recorded the 2007 arrest of a man on Boston Common.
But the plaintiffs said the ruling did not go far enough.
The new suit highlights an incident last year in which a Boston police sergeant shoved a replica gun in the face of a man who was recording him. Police had stopped a teenager who had the replica gun. The man recording the officer did not know the firearm was fake, and said he felt threatened.
Perez said he has had similar experiences.
“Police officers have screamed at me and grabbed my phone when I have openly recorded,” said Pérez, who often participates in demonstrations throughout the city. “As a result, there are times when I would want to record the police doing their jobs in public, but would only feel safe doing so secretly.”
The Boston Police Department did not comment. Jake Wark, spokesman for the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office, called the lawsuit a “dangerous and un-American line of thought.”
“The ACLU is suggesting that we strip some people of the [wiretap] law’s protection based on their employment,” Wark said in a statement. “The ACLU has fought . . . against public cameras that could help identify armed gunmen, sexual predators, and hit-and-run drivers. Instead, they promote secretly recording police officers — who in the vast majority of cases do a difficult and dangerous job the right way — and they promote it in violation of state law.”
Jan Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.