New policy supports rights

Published 10:12 pm Friday, September 14, 2012

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is one of those organizations the mere mention of which is liable to bring about the most intense of debates. People who consider themselves close friends can find themselves in quick arguments over the tactics of the organization, which has gained notoriety for its graphic and even repulsive demonstrations against what it considers abusive treatment of animals used for food. Supporters say the imagery is necessary in order to get people to realize the conditions in which those animals live and die. Detractors say PETA takes things too far in order to prove its point.

But most folks in America understand that PETA’s spokespeople have a right to say what they wish, as long as it doesn’t defame or slander someone. That right to free speech has been ruled by the courts to extend to recording in public places. Suffolk Police Chief Thomas Bennett has reaffirmed the police department’s belief in that right with the institution of a new policy intended to explicitly protect people who shoot video of police officers at work.

The move came as a result of an incident in which a hog truck crashed on Godwin Boulevard in October, when a PETA employee was approached by police officers while shooting video of the cleanup operations. Kent Stein was issued a summons for “crossing an established police line,” but the Commonwealth’s Attorney chose not to prosecute the case after Stein wrote a letter to the officer apologizing if his conduct had seemed disrespectful.

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Stein and his attorney contended that police officers had seemed more concerned with the fact that he was shooting video of the incident than whether he was endangering anyone by being where he was, and it was clear that employees of Murphy-Brown did not want to be recorded having to kill some of the hogs that were in the truck. A PETA attorney contacted the police chief, who looked into the situation and found there was no policy that expressly protected citizens’ freedom to record officers.

Considering the move in various places around the country in recent years to attempt to limit that freedom when it comes to law enforcement officers, Bennett’s response to the criticism was commendable. He set about to codify that right and define the limited circumstances under which his officers can curtail it — situations where safety or evidence could be compromised, primarily.

Surely it would have been preferable if the policy were never needed, if officers were so well versed in the details of constitutional law that they didn’t need this further direction. The more important thing, though, is that Chief Bennett recognized and acted on the need to give it and left no question about his support for citizens’ rights in doing so.