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The Legal Right to Videotape Police Isn't Actually All That Clear

And that includes in South Carolina.
A still image taken from police dash cam video allegedly shows Walter Scott running from his vehicle during a traffic stop before he was shot and killed by white police officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina April 7, 2015. The footage, released by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division on April 9, 2015, was taken minutes before a bystander's video recorded Slager gunning down 50-year-old Scott as he fled.
A still image taken from police dash cam video allegedly shows Walter Scott running from his vehicle during a traffic stop before he was shot and killed by white police officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina April 7, 2015. The footage, released by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division on April 9, 2015, was taken minutes before a bystander's video recorded Slager gunning down 50-year-old Scott as he fled.Reuters/South Carolina Law Enforcement Division/Handout

Last Saturday, a Dominican immigrant named Feidin Santana used his phone to record video of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager firing his gun eight times and killing Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was running away. Slager has been charged with murder. Santana, who is being celebrated as a hero, has since said that he was terrified and thought about erasing the video. He had reason to be afraid. What if police had assaulted or arrested Santana, or destroyed his phone?

In reality, police harassment of civilians recording law enforcement is a frequent occurrence throughout the United States. And contrary to assertions made in two recent New York Times articles, the truth is that courts have not uniformly recognized that a right to record police actually exists. Though the U.S. Department of Justice has expressed its support for the right to record, only four federal appeals courts have ruled that such a right exists; others have either not ruled at all or narrowly ruled that no right had been "clearly established."