Rutherford Institute Sues Pennsylvania Police on Behalf of Business Owner Threatened with Arrest for Videotaping on Public Sidewalk

(Franklin, PA) Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a First Amendment lawsuit against two police officers with the Franklin Police Department who threatened a business owner with arrest simply for videotaping his own business activities and videotaping his subsequent interaction with the police while on a public sidewalk in Franklin, Pennsylvania. The officers allegedly informed Skip Dreibelbis, the president of True Blue Auctions, that by videotaping on a public sidewalk, he was violating wiretapping laws. Institute attorneys filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, charging that police violated Dreibelbis’ First Amendment right to make video recordings in public spaces and infringed upon his right to receive information.

The Rutherford Institute’s complaint in Dreibelbis v. John Does is available here.

“This is a form of censorship that is an egregious violation of Mr. Dreibelbis’ First Amendment rights,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “For police to suggest that this activity violates wiretapping laws is absurd. The ramifications of this kind of government mindset does not bode well for the future of freedom.”

True Blue Auctions, founded by Skip Dreibelbis, provides a variety of auction services to businesses and individuals throughout the country. As part of its normal business practices, True Blue posts auction signs at an auction site and often videotapes the auction so it has a record of bids, amounts, and other details to aid in resolving potential disputes. The videotaping of the auction is always done in the open, at a location to which the public is invited, with permission of the owner of the premises and/or in a public forum area. True Blue Auctions was contracted to carry out a two-day auction in Franklin, Penn., beginning on October 16, 2009. That day, Dreibelbis posted auction signs at the site and began videotaping the auction from the premises where the auction was taking place and from an adjacent public sidewalk. At no time did Dreibelbis block pedestrian traffic on the public sidewalk, nor did anyone complain about the signs or the videotaping or voice the concern that their privacy interests were being violated by the videotaping. Nevertheless, two police officers approached Dreibelbis while he was videotaping the auction from the sidewalk and allegedly informed him that videotaping was against wiretapping laws and that they would have to arrest Dreibelbis if he didn’t put away his video recorder. According to the complaint, the officers also ordered Dreibelbis to remove his posted auction signs and move about 75 yards away. In filing suit against the two unidentified officers with the Franklin Police Department, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute point out that individuals have a right under the First Amendment to videotape persons, including police officers, in public places. Moreover, Institute attorneys contend that by ordering Dreibelbis to turn off the video camera and threatening him with arrest if he did not immediately cease videotaping the auction and the encounter with the police, police also violated Dreibelbis’ right to receive information in that far more protected activity was chilled than was reasonably necessary to protect any compelling government interest.

Attorneys J. Michael Considine, Jr., of West Chester, Penn., and Joseph L. Luciana, III of the Pittsburgh firm of Dingess, Foster, Luciana, Davidson and Chleboski are assisting The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Dreibelbis.

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