You Can Now Film in NYPD Precincts, Thanks to This YouTuber
SeanPaul Reyes won a temporary injunction in federal court last Thursday. The very next day, he was livestreaming in the 75th Precinct with a copy of the court order in his hand.
9:57 AM EST on November 8, 2023
On Friday, the metaphorical ink was still drying on a federal court order barring the NYPD from illegally telling people they can't film the police in the public parts of precinct stations, when SeanPaul Reyes, who had sued the police department after being arrested for doing just that, marched into the 75th Precinct station house in East New York, recording with his phone in one hand, a copy of the judge's order in the other hand.
"We the people did it," Reyes told his livestream audience in a video broadcast viewed more than 300,000 times so far. "We won." Sporting sunglasses, a neatly trimmed beard, and a baseball cap that read "We the People," Reyes held forth in the precinct lobby, celebrating the victory. A police employee poked her head into the lobby to find out what Reyes wanted. "I want to make a complaint against the NYPD as a whole," he told her. After several minutes, a police sergeant emerged and handed Reyes a complaint form. Reyes asked him for his name and badge number, then thanked him and the precinct for being in compliance with the federal injunction. "I appreciate you guys not being in contempt of court," he said. The sergeant dutifully nodded.
Reyes filed his lawsuit in July, after being arrested twice for filming in the public areas of NYPD precinct houses. An NYPD policy, announced in signage in every precinct in the city, forbids filming in station houses. To Reyes, who describes himself as a "First Amendment auditor," that rule was meant to be broken. "The police are there for accountability—if you do something wrong, they hold you accountable," Reyes told Hell Gate. "But how do the people hold the police accountable? There has to be some sort of transparency and accountability for how the police treat people on an everyday basis. That's why I record. I just want to show people how public employees treat people."
Reyes's lawsuit argued that the NYPD's policy is improper for three reasons: It violates the First Amendment's protections of free speech; it violates a state law and a New York City law, both known as the Right to Record Act, which explicitly guarantee the right to record the police, anywhere and any time, so long as the person filming isn't interfering with police work or otherwise breaking the law; and the NYPD instituted its policy without following the Citywide Administrative Procedure Act, which specifies the steps a City agency must take before it can put a new rule in place.
Judge Jessica Clarke, who ordered the injunction last week, ruled that while the First Amendment claim might be a little more complicated, it seems pretty clear that the NYPD violated the state and municipal Right to Record Acts with its policy. "The Right to Record Acts do not carve out police precinct lobbies as places where individuals are not allowed to record," she wrote in her order. Consequently, according to Clarke, Reyes was "likely to succeed on his claims under the Right to Record Acts."
Based on that likelihood, Clarke issued a temporary injunction barring the NYPD from enforcing its rule and directing it to take down the signs in every police station that forbid filming.
That's not the end of Reyes's lawsuit—he is seeking a permanent injunction. With this provisional win under their belts, his legal team will now begin to pursue discovery, gathering information about how the NYPD made its rule in the first place and testing whether there's any evidence to support the NYPD's claim that its policy is necessary to protect the privacy of confidential informants and vulnerable victims of crimes who might be discussing delicate matters in the public spaces of precinct houses.
The YouTube genre of First Amendment auditors is fairly rich, and encompasses everything from kids filming themselves sassing back during traffic stops to steely-eyed libertarians being coolly intransigent at Border Patrol checkpoints deep in the desert. Reyes was a fan of the genre before he was a practitioner. "My brother-in-law, and as well as myself, we used to watch First Amendment audits and police interaction videos," he said. "Traffic stops, going into government agencies and seeing how they really treat members of the public on a daily basis, things of that nature. It always fascinated me how law enforcement and government officials got so upset about somebody recording them, you know? You would think that they would appreciate the transparency."
When COVID hit, Reyes, a Long Island resident, was furloughed from his job as a logistics director for a manufacturing company, and he found himself with some time on his hands. "I was like, might as well just pick up the camera," Reyes said. "Nobody really is doing it here at Suffolk County." Suffolk County police officers initially reacted very aggressively to Reyes's efforts to film them, he said, "But to their credit, they learned very quickly how to adapt and retrain their officers to allow filming in public areas," Reyes said. "So I branched out."
That branching out took Reyes all over the country, as tipsters pointed him to departments that were treating people poorly. Reyes says he distinguishes himself from some other First Amendment auditors by being unfailingly polite. He carries himself in his videos with a sort of jovial formality, conscientiously thanking officers for their time. That manner has built him a following—his YouTube channel has more than 578,000 subscribers, and he says that across all his social media platforms, he has more than a quarter-billion views. Those views bring ad revenue, which Reyes now supports himself on, and he employs a team of colleagues as well. His manner has also earned him the respect of some police departments: He says he's been invited to give First Amendment trainings to departments in New Jersey and Ohio. Eventually, Reyes found his way to Brooklyn, where the NYPD's policy barring the public from recording how they are treated in police precincts seemed ripe for a challenge.
Reyes may be claiming victory against the NYPD, but—the meek welcome its officers offered Reyes on Friday notwithstanding—the department doesn't show any signs of giving up. It has filed notice that it is appealing the judge's order to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. A ruling on that appeal could take years. In the meantime, the NYPD is also seeking a stay of the temporary injunction, allowing the department to continue to bar filming in the meantime.
Reyes's lawyer, Andrew Case of LatinoJustice PRLDF, said that the NYPD's dogged commitment to the dubiously legal policy is characteristic of how the department has approached the entire case. "The NYPD appears to be very resolute about defending the rule and seems to be unwilling to consider other alternatives, that wouldn't run afoul of the Right to Record law," Case said. The NYPD declined to comment on the order, referring questions to the New York City Law Department.
"The NYPD is committed to protecting the privacy of victims and keeping New Yorkers safe, particularly inside the public areas in precincts," a Law Department spokesperson told Hell Gate in a statement. "While we are disappointed with the court's ruling, we are encouraged by the court's indication that NYPD's policy has a legitimate basis. We are evaluating the City's legal options."
The NYPD is also continuing to fight another lawsuit brought over its ban on filming in police stations. Patricia Rodney, a grandmother who was arrested and had her arm broken by police who thought she was filming them in the outer vestibule of the 62nd Precinct station in Dyker Heights, also has an open lawsuit in federal court. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who wrote the New York City Right to Record Act, has filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that the NYPD's policy is illegal. The NYPD is seeking to dismiss that case, but the presiding judge has not yet ruled on that motion. The order in Reyes's case isn't binding precedent in Rodney's lawsuit, but it certainly doesn't bode well for the NYPD.
Back outside the 75th Precinct on Friday, Reyes was ebullient. "This is a major, major win for the people, ladies and gentlemen," he told the camera. "Make sure you guys are smashing that 'like' button and sharing this video so everyone in New York City can see this video and know what we the people can accomplish together. We can accomplish true change. This is just the battle that we won. We still have a war that we need to win."
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