Privacy and the Right to Record
77 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2017 Last revised: 8 Mar 2017
Date Written: March 3, 2017
Many U.S. laws protect privacy by governing recording. Recently, however, courts have recognized a First Amendment “right to record.” This Article addresses how courts should handle privacy laws in light of the developing First Amendment right to record.
The privacy harms addressed by recording laws are situated harms. Recording changes the way people behave in physical spaces by altering the nature of those spaces. Thus, recording laws can be placed within a long line of First Amendment case law that recognizes a valid government interest in managing the qualities of rivalrous physical space, so as not to allow one person’s behavior to disrupt the behavior of others. That interest, importantly, will not always justify suppressing recording, but it can be distinguished from an impermissible government interest in suppressing speech. Moreover, the government’s interest in managing the qualities of a particular environment can itself be speech-protective—and has been recognized as such.
As technological development brings more recording devices into the physical world, courts will need to determine how to balance speech interests and privacy. First Amendment doctrine, often blunt in nature, is in fact, and perhaps surprisingly, equipped to address the nuances of this challenge. Regulating recording governs a moment of interaction in physical space, not a downstream editorial decision that may cause dignitary harms. Regulation, thus, does not break with the U.S. free speech tradition of protecting the publication and distribution of information.
Keywords: Privacy, First Amendment, Free Speech, Right to Record, Drones, License Plate Readers
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