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Appeals court upholds partial gag order on arrest footage

August 6, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina judge properly applied state law when she barred city officials from publicly discussing body camera arrest footage they were allowed to review, the state appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The case stems from the September 2016 arrests of several people in downtown Greensboro, including a black man who was stunned with a Taser, according to court documents. An arrestee filed a complaint about the police conduct, but an internal police probe found the arrests didn’t violate the people’s civil rights.

The city went to court to ask a judge to allow members of the Greensboro City Council to review body camera footage. Under state law, police video generally can’t be released without court approval.

A Guilford County judge agreed in 2018 to allow the council members and other city officials to view the police footage, but they would only be allowed to discuss the video “with each other in their official capacity,” according to court documents.

City officials asked the court to reconsider, arguing that they should be able to discuss the video publicly with constituents. Council members also decided not to watch the footage while fighting the judge’s order so they wouldn’t be limited in their ability to discuss the case with the public.

They argued in their appeal that the partial gag order violated their First Amendment rights and prevented them from doing their jobs.

“The City Council members believed that the gag order did pose a substantial impediment to the discharge of their duties as elected municipal officials because it prevented them from discussing a matter of public concern with their constituents,” attorneys for the city wrote in their appeal last year.

However, North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the lower court didn’t overstep state law, partly because the restrictions apply to information gleaned from the video, but didn’t prevent council members from discussing what they learned about the case from other sources.

Judge Chris Dillon wrote in the appeals court’s majority opinion that “the trial court did not abuse its discretion in initially placing and later refusing to modify a restriction on release of body-cam footage, as the City officials otherwise had no right to the information.”

The third judge on the panel concurred with the ruling through a separate opinion, adding that the appeal should have been dismissed on procedural grounds.

An attorney representing Greensboro, Patrick Kane, said in an email Tuesday that city officials were evaluating their options going forward in the case.

Lawyers for Greensboro police officers depicted on the body camera footage argued the appeal should be dismissed on procedural grounds. They also argued that the council members should only be allowed to discuss the footage publicly if the video were also released to the public so people can see it for themselves.

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