Maine activists protest police surveillance at demonstrations
By The Associated Press
PORTLAND, Maine Activists and civil libertarians say snapping cameras and whirring camcorders at demonstrations intimidate people who disagree with the government. The activists say the recording devices should be regulated by the state.
Activists also say collecting information on tape or film reminds them of government excesses during the 1960s, when demonstrators opposed to war in Vietnam were sometimes harassed by authorities.
The issue arises following a raucous demonstration in Portland in opposition to the United States waging a war against Iraq. City police made a videotape of the event.
A week later, a state police trooper snapped pictures as demonstrators protested House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's appearance at a rally in Lewiston.
Louise Roback of the Maine Civil Liberties Union says people have a right to engage in anonymous political activity without being monitored by police.
"It causes us concern that the police monitoring who is at a rally could very much chill people's exercise of their First Amendment free-speech rights. It's an intimidating tactic," said Roback.
The MCLU executive director says she wants the state to set guidelines limiting when police can photograph political functions and how long those images can be preserved.
Photographing protesters is "the sort of thing that was done behind the Iron Curtain," said Larry Shea, a Caribou resident who protested in the 1960s.
"This country was founded upon dissent and civil disobedience," he said. "We have a tradition of this in this country, standing up to tyranny and standing up to things we disagree with."
Police contend that pictures or videos can be useful in case criminal activity occurs. Police say they have no interest in keeping files on protesters, and note that the act of capturing images of large crowds can discourage criminal behavior.
"If it does break down into a situation where there are arrests, we can document that and show the truth," said Capt. Joseph Loughlin, head of the Portland police patrol division.
Loughlin called for a video camera Sept. 26 when a peace march of more than 150 people occupied a busy intersection in downtown Portland. When police couldn't persuade the crowd to leave the street, commanders summoned every available officer in the city and called for a bus to transport offenders to jail.
As officers videotaped the protest, some participants sought out the cameras while others covered their faces with bandannas or sweatshirt hoods. Three people were arrested on charges of assaulting police and 11 others were arrested on charges related to obstructing a public way.
Portland police said that when rival motorcycle gangs started showing up in force in Portland this summer, they videotaped every biker they could. That record could help in future criminal investigations, Loughlin said.
"It is not unusual for police officers to take photos," said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police. "That helps set a scene, particularly if there is an enforcement action that follows."
McCausland noted that at any public event in a public location, "there is no expectation of privacy by anyone there."
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