Tales from Stasiland: The policeman's right not to be on YouTube | Harper's Magazine

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Tales from Stasiland: The policeman’s right not to be on YouTube


With the spread of phone cameras and pocket videorecorders, citizens around the United States have taken to recording the conduct of police. Often the conduct seems innocuous enough. But sometimes, the act of recording itself seems to send police off the deep end. ABC News’s Ray Sanchez now reports on a growing trend: police prosecuting citizens for taping them.

That Anthony Graber broke the law in early March is indisputable. He raced his Honda motorcycle down Interstate 95 in Maryland at 80 mph, popping a wheelie, roaring past cars and swerving across traffic lanes. Anthony Graber was arrested for posting a video of his traffic stop on YouTube. But it wasn’t his daredevil stunt that has the 25-year-old staff sergeant for the Maryland Air National Guard facing the possibility of 16 years in prison. For that, he was issued a speeding ticket. It was the video that Graber posted on YouTube one week later — taken with his helmet camera — of a plainclothes state trooper cutting him off and drawing a gun during the traffic stop near Baltimore.

In early April, state police officers raided Graber’s parents’ home in Abingdon, Md. They confiscated his camera, computers and external hard drives. Graber was indicted for allegedly violating state wiretap laws by recording the trooper without his consent.

Here’s Graber’s YouTube of his encounter with the Maryland policeman.

Of course the anti-wiretapping statute that the Maryland state police cite is designed to protect private persons from having their phone conversations monitored without their consent (you know, the sort of thing that the folks at Fort Meade now do routinely). The idea that it would protect a public official in the course of the performance of his duties in a public place would probably come as a shock to the legislators who authored this measure. The way the prosecutors have construed the statute, shooting ordinary news footage is turned into a criminal act.

This is an extreme example of the arrogance of power, in which a Maryland cop exercised bad judgment, was embarrassed when he was publicly exposed, and got his colleagues and prosecutors to exercise still worse judgment.

As Aristotle teaches us, in a democracy the people are entitled to throw light on the dealings of public officials to keep them honest, whereas the private dealings of the people are to be sheltered from unreasonable intrusion. In a tyranny, the officials of the government are enshrouded in secrecy but constantly invade the privacy of the common citizens. Which model does this bring the people of Maryland closer to?

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