This is a story about Simon Glik, a man who could have walked away when he witnessed a group of Boston police officers punching a man on the Boston Common.
But, unlike most of us, Simon Glik didn’t walk away. Instead, he pulled out his cell phone camera and began to record the incident. As a result, Simon Glik himself was wrongfully arrested.
Today a federal appeals court in Boston heard arguments on whether to throw out a civil rights suit that Simon has filed against the Boston police. Now the court will decide whether cops can get away with wrongfully arresting innocent passersby in order to silence anyone who documents their misconduct.
The incident occurred in 2007 on the Boston Common – our nation’s quintessential free speech forum. Simon, whose family emigrated from Soviet Russia, presumably to raise their son in the freedom of Brookline, Massachusetts, grew up believing in the American system of justice. He even obtained his law degree with the hope of defending the system.
Given his background, perhaps it’s not surprising that when Simon saw officers punching a man and heard another passerby say, “You’re hurting him,” Simon didn’t just walk away. He took out his cell phone and began to record the incident. He stood about 10 feet away from the police as they made the arrest and never interfered with the officers’ actions.
When a police officer approached him, Simon said, “I am recording this. I saw you punch him.” At that point, the police arrested Simon – handcuffing him and seizing his phone. They charged him with violating a wiretap statute that prohibits secret recording (although police admit that they were aware Simon was not acting secretly), aiding the escape of a prisoner, and disturbing the peace.
A court subsequently threw out all charges against Simon as lacking merit. But the effort to intimidate him was clear. The cops warned Simon that, if convicted, he’d never be able to practice law. He was forced to put his job search on hold and to spend money to hire a lawyer to defend him against these baseless charges. And the police erased all but one snippet of the recording (which you can see here). Even after the charges against him were dismissed, Simon again refused to walk away.
Instead, he filed a civil rights suit to ensure that other innocent people won’t be similarly arrested for doing what most people would consider a civic duty – documenting public instances of police misconduct. He did so to make sure that America doesn’t start to resemble authoritarian regimes like Russia, Syria or Egypt, where the police regularly arrest innocent people who dare to document police abuse.
The hearing this morning – in the First Circuit Court of Appeals – focused on whether the police who violated Simon Glik’s constitutional rights should be granted immunity on the grounds that they could not have known that what they did was wrong.
No kidding – the police argued that their ignorance of the law is an excuse for what is a clear violation of an innocent man’s rights.
The police also argued that they have a right to arrest anyone who is video-recording in any public forum -- including the arrest of television and other news media recording a public rally -- unless the people doing the recording get express permission from each person caught on tape.
Such a breath-taking interpretation of the law -- if accepted by the court -- would effectively gut the First Amendment on the Boston Common and virtually anywhere else in New England.
Twice now, Simon Glik has had the courage not to walk away in the face of wrong-doing. Let’s hope that the court won’t walk away from Simon Glik – or the American Constitution.
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