U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Lane has upheld the Constitutional right to film police officers in the case of Antonio Buehler vs. the City of Austin, Austin Police Department, et. al.
Plaintiff Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome Learning and the Peaceful Streets Project made headlines in 2012 after he photographed Austin Police Officer Patrick Oborski assaulting a woman in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2012. After Oborski noticed Buehler taking pictures, he assaulted Buehler, and filed a Felony Harassment of a Public Official charge against him for allegedly spitting in the officer’s face. A charge that carries a two to ten year prison sentence.
Facing felony charges, Buehler went to the public to ask for witnesses to step forward, and multiple witnesses did. A local entrepreneur and a local academician who were both in the 7-11 parking lot shared their stories with the local media, and a gentleman across the street took cell phone video of the incident. With witnesses and the video, coupled with Buehler’s background which included degrees from West Point and Stanford, prior service as an Airborne Ranger qualified Army officer, extensive volunteering and education work with children, his role as a designated driver that night, and no previous run-ins with law enforcement, the incident garnered significant media attention and forced the Austin Police Department to resort to a slander campaign against Buehler and the woman who was assaulted on New Year’s Day.
Buehler used his significant following of supporters to then launch the Peaceful Streets Project to encourage people to know their rights, stand up for the rights of one another and to hold police accountable for their actions. The Peaceful Streets Project handed out 100 free video cameras to residents of Austin to document police action, they organized hundreds of cop watch events, and they organized two police accountability summits with speakers such as the Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, and investigative journalist Radley Balko.
With the rise of the success of the Peaceful Streets Project, the Austin Police Department increased their harassment of Buehler and his supporters. APD arrested several Peaceful Streets Project volunteers for filming, including Buehler who they arrested three more times. Each time the police arrested a filmer, the Peaceful Streets Project would increase their efforts to document police actions.
Buehler’s charges remained outstanding for 15 months before a Grand Jury finally no-billed Buehler. However, they did indict him on four class C misdemeanor charges (failure to obey (3), interference with public duties (1)).
Buehler retained Attorney Daphne Silverman to file suit against the City of Austin, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, and Officers Patrick Oborski, Robert Snider, Adam Johnson and Justin Berry, on First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment Grounds, as well as violations of the Texas Constitution, conversion, false arrest and false imprisonment. The City of Austin then filed motions to dismiss the case which resulted in Judge Lane’s decision.
Judge Lane ruled against the city on almost every ground of the 12(b)(6) motion, with the exception of excessive force. Buehler’s civil rights suit against the City remains lively, as there is a recognized First Amendment right to film the police: “A private citizen has the right to assemble in a public forum, receive information on a matter of public concern – such as police officers performing their official duties – and to record that information for the purpose of conveying that information.”
Silverman said that she and her client were pleased with Lane’s detailed analysis in support of Buehler’s constitutional rights. “This ruling is a clear signal to law enforcement that the public can now photograph and videotape police officers so long as they don’t interfere with the officer’s duties,” she said.
Buehler said he hopes his case exposes corruption endemic within the Austin Police Department and in departments nationwide. “The extent to which APD is willing to go to try to victimize the victims of police abuse to protect cops who commit felony crimes is quite telling about the corrupt culture within the police department. I am the founder of an education company, a West Point, Stanford and Harvard graduate, the designated driver that night who tried to stand up for a woman being assaulted by the police, and there are a half dozen witnesses and two videos that all prove that the cops committed multiple crimes that night and that the woman they assaulted and I were both innocent victims. If the cops are willing to go after me like this, imagine what they’ll do to a young black or Hispanic male, a homeless person, or a person with prior drug offenses.”
The National Press Photographers Association in May filed an amicus brief in support of his case, which the organization says is not an isolated incident but “part of a nationwide phenomenon where police have interfered with citizens’ rights to photograph and video-record officers engaged in official business in public spaces.”
“NPPA follows these cases closely, and strives to ensure that the crucial role that journalists and citizens play in promoting discussions of public concern is not diminished,” the brief states.
While Buehler has not been convicted of any crimes levied against him by the Austin Police Department, the four misdemeanor charges are still pending, over two years later.
For more information, visit www.peacefulstreetsproject.com