Oklahoma bill makes it illegal to post photos of police with "threatening intent" (2023)

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Oklahoma bill makes it illegal to post photos of police with "threatening intent" (2)
  • Bill meant to protect privacy of government workers prohibits posting a video or photo of a police officer with “threatening intent”.
  • “Intent” is determined by a judge or prosecutor.
  • ACLU, other groups opposed to the bill.
  • HB 1643 was signed by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt at the end of May, 2021 and takes effect November 1, 2021.

Back in February, Oklahoma Legislators passed the second of two companion bills that would criminalize anyone who films and publicly posts a photo of police officers.

Determined to prove their support for law enforcement, Oklahoma state senators and representatives took a drastic step. The legislation would make it more difficult to hold public servants accountable for their misconduct.

State representatives unanimously passed House Bill 2273 out of the House Judiciary Criminal Committee. It makes a criminal out of anyone who intentionally publishes personally identifiable information of a law enforcement officer, such as a photo or video, with the intent to “threaten, intimidate, harass or stalk,” according to the bill’s text.

The bill would create a misdemeanor charge for the first violation and a felony for any further violations that “causes, attempts to cause or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress or financial loss to the law enforcement officer, or to the family, household member or intimate partner of the law enforcement officer.”

Notably, what the bill considers “personally identifiable information” mixes in the reasonable with the extreme. Along with name, birth date, and address, it lists telephone number, driver license number, Social Security number, place of employment, and mother’s maiden name as items that would be banned from being made public by civilians. At the end of the list, it includes: “a photograph or any other realistic likeness of the person.”

Companion bills moving forward in Oklahoma Legislature

It would seem obvious that Social Security numbers of any employee should remain private, which makes one wonder what the motivation was for including photos of any personal likeness. Historically and even recently, video footage has been one of the only reliable ways to hold law-breaking police officers accountable.

Senate Bill 6 is a companion bill with the same language. It passed the Republican-dominated Senate Public Safety Committee. More than one advocacy group has come out against it.

“If the personally identifiable information specifically excluded name, place of employment, and a photograph we would probably not oppose the bill,” said Cindy Alexander of Indivisible Stillwater Oklahoma, an education and advocacy group. “Video is like an extension of our collective eyes and we don’t want our eyes blindfolded.” Alexander said that while it threatens the rights of Oklahomans, she doesn’t expect it to pass.

But both Senate Bill 6 and House Bill 2273 ended up being used as cover for HB 1643, which took on the same language of the two other bills. Republican legislators sailed it through, and there was next to nothing preventing the governor from signing the new legislation into law.

Some Dems vote Yes

Oklahomans may be used to watching the Republican-controlled legislature pass bills unfriendly to racial justice and equal rights. But it wasn’t just Republicans who voted for the Senate and House versions of this new law. This time Democrats did, too.

Months ago, State Representatives Jose Cruz (D-OKC) and Jason Lowe (D-OKC) joined their counterparts in passing one of the former bills.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 6 also passed unanimously out of the Senate Public Safety Committee. The committee’s only two Democrats, state Senators Kevin Matthews (D-Tulsa) and Michael Brooks (D-OKC), both voted yes on the measure.

The BWSTimes reached out to state Senator Paul Rosino (R-OKC), who authored Senate Bill 6. His office didn’t return a request for comment. We also reached out to every Democratic state representative and state senator who voted for these bills, but only state Senator Kevin Matthews responded. He said he no longer supported the bill, and would vote no when it came to the Senate floor. Kevin Matthews is founder and chairman of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.

“My specific question was does this include videotaping officers? Such as the George Floyd incident. The author stated no it did not,” Matthews said in an email, defending his initial vote. Matthews said he and his Democratic colleagues voted out of the interests of privacy and safety. He said they couldn’t find any negative statements from the ACLU at the time.

“With the calls and emails, including yours, that I am now getting about this bill, I will be voting no on the floor and debating against it,” Matthews said. But the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. Though several Democrats explained that their purpose for originally supporting one of the companion bills was to be able to negotiate changes, they were ultimately unable to change any of the language preventing citizens from filming officers of the state.

Video evidence a tool against police brutality

Black people and other marginalized Americans already feel the deck is stacked against them when it comes to gaining justice. Even as the country awaited the March murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd, doubt of a conviction hung over the nation like a dark cloud. Proof of misconduct in the form of photos and video changed the national conversation on race and policing. George Floyd’s viral death forced a social reckoning and political awakening. It sent millions out into the streets during the country’s largest social uprising since the Civil Rights Movement.

Yet, even video footage has rarely been enough to gain convictions of police officers. Eliminating that as a tool altogether would make it nearly impossible for victims of police brutality to gain justice. It could also destroy any bit of trust left between marginalized communities and the officers that patrol them.

The American Civil Liberties Union responds to bill

Voicing their concerns, the ACLU of Oklahoma came out strongly against the language of the bills in an interview with TheBWSTimes.

“While police and law enforcement officers like everyone have a reasonable expectation of privacy at their job, legislation like this isn’t about privacy. It’s about interfering with accountability,” said Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy for ACLU-OK. “And given the lack of trust that exists, legislation like this poses a threat to necessary and continuing movement work.”

She, along with the ACLU-OK’s new Black executive director Tamya Cox-Toure, both agreed it was a “pretty direct response” to Black Lives Matter protests in the Summer of 2020.

“And I think with legislation like this we can’t take for granted the fact that supermajorities in both chambers are willing to pass political bills for the sake of passing them, regardless of the harm they do,” McAfee warned about the legislation which gained the support of Republicans and a few Democrats.

Many residents have doubts that the law to ban photos or video of police wouldn’t stand up in state or federal court, even with “threatening intent” as the motivation.

Yet, by the end of Oklahoma’s legislative session at the end of May, the final version of the bill in the form of HB 1643 was passed, signed by the governor, and will take effect November 1, 2021.

Most recently in July, despite complaints from legislators and others that our article “mischaracterizes the bill,” an OKC police officer was recorded telling a bystander that filming him “takes away his safety.” The footage showed the officer pointing a gun for over a minute at a teen already on the ground face down with hands behind his back.

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