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Remaining Private in Public

I recall walking into the Cambridge Police Department headquarters in Central Square one day during the peak of the Vietnam era anti-war protests. Looking for a particular officer, I accidentally wandered into an office maintained by the “intelligence” unit of the department. There I came across a wall of photographs spanned of college students and Cambridge residents at local anti-war demonstrations. The police had circled a number of faces and written the names of the protestors above the circles. Given the utterly peaceful nature of the demonstrations and their protected status under the First Amendment, I felt a chill run up and down my spine. I sensed that the moment one of these “troublemakers” did something that could even remotely be seen as a crime, the cops would be there, handcuffs in hand, lying in wait – not because of an arguable crime, but because of the citizen’s political views.

            That’s why I was relieved to read a decision from Federal District Judge Charles Haight in Manhattan this week that barred the NYPD from photographing and videotaping political demonstrations. While the police, like the rest of us, are free to attend a public demonstration, Haight wrote, they are prohibited from videotaping or photographing any individual or group engaging in public political activity without having some basis for the heightened surveillance. 

            Haight’s decision is the latest order in a long-running lawsuit between the NYPD and the politically active citizens of the Big Apple that began back in 1971 and continues to this day. The decision does not exactly establish a precedent for other areas of the country, since the basis for the order is Judge Haight’s interpretation of a settlement of the original class action, as modified after the terrorist attack of 9-11-01 on New York City. Still, the order does put weight behind the notion that even though the police may view a public display of political protest or opinion, they may not take the additional step that experience shows can inhibit citizens from exercising their constitutional right, under the First Amendment, to speak freely and “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Judge Haight sought to draw a line that would preserve some semblance of civilized police restraint in an era where it is generally – although not universally – agreed that earlier, more innocent practices must be somewhat compromised in the name of national security. The original class action lawsuit was brought while the Vietnam War and protests against that war were raging. One hopes we will be able to preserve a similar modicum of civilized freedom here in the Hub of the Universe, the City on a Hill. If they can do it in the Big Apple, we should be able to do it here.

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