The City of Philadelphia has agreed to pay $250,000 to two people who claimed that police officers violated their First Amendment rights by blocking them from taking photos of police activity.
The settlements, announced Tuesday, ended years of legal wrangling over civil suits filed on behalf of Amanda Geraci, a local activist, and Richard Fields, formerly a Temple University student. The ACLU of Pennsylvania, which brought the claims for the pair, said it hoped their cases served as a "warning sign" against those who would seek to prevent recordings of cops.
"The best tool for police accountability available today is the smartphone in someone's pocket," Molly Tack-Hooper, an ACLU staff attorney, said in a statement. "We're grateful to our clients for enduring years of litigation to protect this vital First Amendment freedom."
The decision to settle the lawsuits is the latest ripple in a protracted, nationwide legal battle over whether citizens have a constitutional right to record the police — and perhaps the latest example of how that pendulum has largely swung in favor of the public.
City spokesman Mike Dunn said in a statement that the Police Department established a directive in 2012 allowing citizens to record officers on the job in public. He also said the decision to settle the cases from Geraci and Fields "was in the best interests of the city," though he did not elaborate.
Geraci and Fields had filed separate but similar claims for interactions that occurred several years ago.
Geraci, a self-described legal observer and member of a police watchdog group called Up Against the Law, said she had been attempting to take pictures of an officer arresting a protester at the Convention Center in 2012 when another officer pushed her up against a pillar and restrained her.
Fields said that in 2013, while he was a Temple sophomore, an officer damaged his cellphone and charged him with a summary offense because he had been taking pictures of officers breaking up a party near campus. The charges were later withdrawn.
A federal judge initially ruled against Geraci and Fields, but in July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia issued an opinion in their favor.
"Simply put, the First Amendment protects the act of photographing, filming, or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public," the opinion said, calling such a view "a growing consensus."
The case was then remanded to another judge to determine whether the city should be held liable for the officers' conduct, but the city and the protesters agreed to settle the case before a judge could decide.
The ACLU's statement said the settlement money would be shared by Fields and Geraci, and that some of it would cover attorneys' fees.