This bill is meant to make 'video stalking' illegal. Some warn it goes too far.

Patrick Anderson
Providence Journal

At many protests or campaign rallies these days, there can be nearly as many people recording video of what's happening as there are people doing something worth recording.

And into that world of dueling video posts and constant surveillance, the Rhode Island House of Representatives on Thursday passed to prevent "video stalking" over warnings by civil libertarians that it could make it a crime to record people, including public officials or police, in public places.

East Providence Rep. Matthew Dawson, a lawyer, introduced the bill after discovering what he describes as a loophole in criminal law that makes it difficult to stop people who are harassing others by repeatedly recording them in daily life. He said at least one of his clients is dealing with just such an issue.

"I'm not going to say it happens a lot, but it happens," Dawson said of video stalking. "A neighbor just kept recording a family coming and going for two years because they didn't like them and wanted to make them move. [The neighbor] would take video of [the family's] teenage daughter getting on and off the school bus." 

Breaking down the bill

, adds harassment by "electronic recording" to the acts that qualify as criminal stalking in state law, punishable by a year in prison or $1,000 fine.

To become stalking, the recording would have to have "no legitimate purpose" and be something a "reasonable person would consider seriously annoying."

Behind the opposition to the bill

But the Rhode Island Public Defenders Office and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island argue that reasonable people find many aspects of day-to-day life "seriously annoying."

"Unlike the current definition of stalking, this new offense would not require that the prohibited conduct cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress or fear bodily injury – or any harm at all," the ACLU wrote in House Judiciary Committee testimony. "Nor would it require that the alleged offender have an intent to 'seriously alarm' the person. ... we do not consider annoyance to be a legitimate standard for a criminal offense."

The ACLU letter opposing the bill goes on to describe two scenarios that could lead to video-stalking arrests:

  • An "intrepid, if abrasive, news reporter" following a public official who "brushes off the reporter by saying he will not answer any questions," after which "one could easily argue that the reporter had no 'legitimate purpose' continuing to follow and question the official."
  • An individual "who aggressively, but constitutionally," records the "activities of a police officer in his interactions with the public."

To that list Curtis Pouliot-Alvarez, the public defender's office legislative liaison, adds paparazzi to the list of those who could run afoul of a video-stalking law.

It "has the potential to criminalize constitutionally protected activities, such as recording public officials in public spaces, filming celebrities, politicians, and other public figures, as well as other forms of constitutionally protected photography," he wrote in committee testimony.

Dawson said the intent of the bill, modeled on laws in Massachusetts and California, is not to prohibit any of the things critics are worried about. Anyone doing their job, such as the press, would have a clear "legitimate purpose."

"This in my view is just something we have to do because of advancements in technology," he said.

The fate of the bill in the Senate is less clear. No matching version has been introduced there yet.