PHOENIX (AP) — Republican leaders of the Arizona legislature will not try to defend a new law restricting close-range filming of police blocked by a federal judge, a decision that essentially ends the battle about the controversial proposal.
Senate President Karen Fann and House Speaker Rusty Bowers both said they would not intervene in Friday’s case set by the federal judge when he temporarily blocked the new law under the First Amendment last week.
And the bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative John Kavanagh, said on Friday he could not find an outside group to defend the bill, which has been challenged by news media organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The groups will now demand that the law, which is due to take effect next week, be blocked permanently.
Kavanagh said he will review US District Judge John J. Tuchi’s ruling and see if he can draft a law that passes constitutional scrutiny. He said the law is needed to prevent people from distracting police while trying to make an arrest, but Tuchi agreed with the challengers that it violates precedents that say the public and the press have the right to film the police doing their job.
Tuchi noted that there are already laws in Arizona that prohibit police, and that, on the face of it, it seems unconstitutional to single people out for making videos. And he wrote in his statement that prohibiting anyone from using a telephone or news video camera to record — without prohibiting other actions — is a content-based restriction that is illegal.
“If the purpose of HB2319 is to prevent interference with law enforcement activities, the court fails to see how the presence of a person recording a video near an officer interferes with the officer’s activities,” Tuchi wrote.
The law makes it illegal to knowingly film police officers 2.5 meters or closer if the officer tells the person to stop. And on private property, an officer who decides someone is interfering or the area is unsafe can order the person to stop filming, even if the recording was made with the owner’s permission.
Cell phone videos of bystanders are largely attributed to revealing police misconduct — such as the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officers — and reshaping the conversation about police transparency. But Republican lawmakers in Arizona say the legislation was necessary to restrict people with cameras that deliberately obstruct officers.
Kavanagh and the legislature were repeatedly warned by the ACLU and the National Press Photographers Association that the proposal would violate the First Amendment, but it passed with only Republican support. The NPPA also wrote to Republican government Doug Ducey on behalf of itself and more than two dozen press groups and media companies, including The Associated Press, after the measure was passed, also telling him it was unconstitutional and urging a veto. Ducey signed the bill anyway.
Mickey H. Osterreicher, the general counsel of the Photographers’ Association, called the law “an unconstitutional solution in search of a non-existent problem.”
“It’s always a lot easier to write a letter than it is to file a lawsuit,” he said. “But some people like to do it the easy way and other people are forced to do it the hard way.”
When a coalition of media groups and the ACLU filed a lawsuit, Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich declined to defend the law, as did the state attorney general and sheriff’s office in Maricopa County, home of Phoenix.
Bowers said he and fellow Republicans ignored opponents who said the bill was unconstitutional and essentially said, “Let’s just try and see what happens.”
“But if you get to exactly where you need to start spending money, no,” Bowers said. “We’ll just wait until next year.”