While I welcome Judge Haight's decision barring the NYPD from photographing and videotaping political demonstrations, it seems almost quaint, considering the ubiquity of surveillance cameras (private and public) that record so many of our public moves, routinely and without notice. In addition, we’re apt to be captured on tape by fellow citizens armed with video cameras, on the look-out for whatever behavior they consider worth exposing on the Net.
As Jennifer Saranow recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, websites capturing "the most trivial missteps by ordinary folks" are proliferating. If you’re not caught on tape by self-appointed scourges of bad dressers or inept parkers, you might be recorded by an independent journalist, like Josh Wolfe, the 24 year old video blogger currently in prison for contempt for refusing to give a federal grand jury his tape of an anti-globalization protest. Wolfe recently broke the record for time spent in prison by a journalist charged with contempt; his tenacity is admirable and probably quite unusual. (Update/April 4: Wolfe was just released from prison after striking a deal that required him to surrender his tape but absolved him of any obligation to testify before a grand jury.)
How many people would refuse to turn over their tapes or photographs when ordered by a court –especially if they’re simply voyeurs who don’t regard themselves as journalists? Not everyone taping a political protest would decline to cooperate with police, and whenever you attend a protest these days, you should probably assume that someone is taping it. So the question is: if other federal and state courts follow the lead of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Josh Wolf’s case and decide that that law enforcement officials have the right to obtain tapes made by private individuals, including journalists, how much will Judge Haight’s decision matter?