On Monday, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a measure that will restrict public access to police body-camera footage – the latest in a series of controversial bills that have landed on the governor’s desk.
House Bill 972, which the ACLU has called a “shameful law,” will effectively block citizens from accessing what should remain public record: footage recorded from the uniforms or dashboards of our state’s police officers. The intent is clear. Once it goes into effect, the law will prevent social justice advocates from accessing footage that could contain evidence of the unjust use of force.
The law’s passage follows the fatal police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, both of which were caught on camera and shared widely across the internet. The ensuing national outrage and the strong backlash against this bill highlight the importance of videos to public discourse on social justice issues.
Though he lived in a time before social media, Associate Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis understood the significance of technology in righting the world’s wrongs. “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases,” he said. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
No other medium has as much power to shed light on wrongdoing and expose the abuse of the weak by the strong than video. As a native North Carolinian and video producer for an animal protection organization, I can attest to the critical role videos play in the struggle for justice and greater transparency in my home state.
This new law and the North Carolina ag-gag law, which went into effect Jan. 1, jeopardize the effectiveness of that medium as a tool for furthering both human and animal rights. Whereas the ag-gag law shields animal abusers from public scrutiny and criminal liability, HB 972 could do the same for police officers who let prejudice cloud their judgment or simply employ too much force.
Using video, my organization has uncovered horrific animal cruelty at every North Carolina factory farm we’ve investigated. This includes the criminal animal abuse we documented inside a Richmond County Perdue Farms facility. Publicly exposing that video footage led directly to Perdue’s committing to improved animal welfare standards and oversight, even going as far as pledging to install cameras in all its facilities to detect and deter abuse. This progress would not have occurred had the ag-gag law been in place last year.
The public deserves to know how animals are treated on modern factory farms, just as the public deserves to know how police officers treat those they (rightly or wrongly) assume to be acting unlawfully. But the ag-gag law prevents us from bringing more footage of animal cruelty to the public – just as HB 972 will bar social justice advocates from exposing police brutality.
In restricting the use of video, these laws hinder the ability of North Carolina residents to hold both public servants and private companies accountable for illegal and immoral behavior. When we cannot access or broadcast potentially condemning footage, we are prevented not only from bringing criminals to justice, but also from using video to further conversations about critical social issues.
Ironically, McCrory remarked that HB 972 “ensures transparency.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Fundamentally, both of these laws – HB 972 and the ag-gag law – are about decreasing transparency. They send a clear message to the rest of the country that North Carolina has something to hide – that we aren’t proud of the way our businesses or police forces conduct themselves. And the laws signal a dangerous pattern. What will our government conceal from us next?
In the era of social media, videos have the potential to reach millions of people in an instant, informing the masses not only about individual acts of injustice but also about deeper systemic problems our country faces. Videos reveal what happens behind the closed doors of powerful – and often oppressive – institutions. They are the fuel on which many modern social movements run, and without them, we are immobilized.
But if McCrory and his colleagues in the legislature were being transparent themselves, they would tell you that is precisely the point.
Jamie Berger is a North Carolina native and the media production manager for Mercy For Animals.