As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” That is, allowing the public to see what officials do serves as the best watchdog against government abuses. Yet, several states such as Arizona, Indiana, and now Florida have passed laws in recent years that obstruct transparency and criminalize people’s ability to view what public officials do. 

Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation enabling police, firefighters, and paramedics to establish a 25-foot no-go zone around themselves while they respond to an emergency. After initially warning onlookers, the law allows police to arrest and charge anyone with a second-degree misdemeanor who enters this zone to impede, interfere, threaten, or harass a first responder. The legislation is written broadly, only defining harassment as “… to willfully engage in a course of conduct directed at a first responder which intentionally causes substantial emotional distress in that first responder and serves no legitimate purpose.” Violators of Florida’s law, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2025, can receive up to 60 days in prison and a $500 fine. 

Florida’s attempt to obscure first responders’ actions from public view comes as similar laws in other states continue to get struck down by federal courts. Last year, Indiana passed a law akin to Florida’s despite the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Indiana, ruling more than a decade ago that Americans can record the police. In 2022, Arizona state lawmakers did the same.  

In each of these cases, federal courts have asserted that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to record police activity. In fact, eight of 12 federal appellate courts, which have jurisdiction over a combined 37 of the 50 states, have held that the First Amendment gives Americans the right to record the police, whether it’s during a traffic stop or a bystander witnessing an arrest. While the First Amendment does allow for “reasonable restrictions” on certain aspects of protected speech, laws like Florida’s and others aren’t narrowly tailored to meet that requirement. 

The First Amendment protects the right to gather news, which includes filming the police. As the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its 2023 ruling upholding an individual’s right to record the police, “[C]reating and disseminating information is protected speech under the First Amendment,” because it “… creates information that contributes to discussion about governmental affairs.” Without the ability to observe police and other first responders, there’s no way to speak about them. 

Laws restricting an individual’s right to peacefully record or view first responders’ actions are an attempt stifle government transparency: blocking the rays of accountability from disinfecting abuses of power. These laws eliminate access to information, make officials less accountable, sweep wrongdoing under the rug, and criminalize Americans’ efforts to engage in their community. Just as a plant withers when hidden from sunlight, a functioning democracy can’t thrive without transparency. 

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