Chicago aviation police drag a bloodied man down the aisle of a United plane. A mother clutching her baby weeps after a scuffle with an American Airlines flight attendant. A Transportation Safety Administration officer prods a teenage boy during a security patdown at Dallas/Fort Worth. Fists fly at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood after Spirit cancels dozens of flights.
Since the start of the year, the collection of videos documenting altercations between airline personnel and customers has surpassed the number of movies in the “Rocky” franchise. The most recent addition: Navang Oza’s 13-minute reel of his spat with a United ticketing agent in New Orleans.
“We’re in the midst of a social revolution driven by the fact that everyone has a camera phone in their pocket,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “People are challenging authority in new ways.”
Not so long ago, only immediate bystanders would have witnessed these alarming events. Today, millions of eyes are watching the incidents up close and on repeat. The critical question: Should you press the record button or duck behind the in-flight magazine? Many experts say “press.”
Amitai Etzioni, a sociology professor at George Washington University, says the public has a moral obligation to document injustices.
“You cannot look away or ignore,” he said. “At least record it and share it.”
Several recent passenger videos have spurred change. After the bumping incident, United and other carriers added consumer-friendly provisions to their overbooking policies. American suspended its belligerent crew member. The TSA worked with the mother of the teenager to update its online materials on traveling with children.
“Technology is the new checks and balances against authority,” Stanley said. “It can improve the situation.”
If you are worried about breaking the law by filming without permission, don’t worry: If you are on public property, the Founding Fathers have your back.
On its website, the ACLU explains the right to record: “Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right — and that includes transportation facilities.”
Publicly owned airports fall under this purview, though Stanley added that the courts have not fully tested the constitutionality of this rule, especially in relation to airports operated by public-private partnerships. On private property, the proprietor can prohibit photography and ask you to leave. The owner can also call the cops to escort you, the trespasser, off the premises.
Planes are trickier beasts. The airlines own the aircraft, but Stanley explains that planes are “common carrier conveyances and otherwise highly regulated spaces.” He said that he can’t imagine the airlines prohibiting passengers from using their cellphones; administering such a ban, he said, would be a fruitless exercise.
The carriers publish their guidelines on personal electronics in their in-flight magazines or on their websites. The language varies little between carriers.
Southwest: “Want to photograph and/or record Southwest Airlines Customers or Employees? Let them know first! The use of cameras and mobile devices is permitted onboard to capture personal events but can never interfere with the safety of a flight and should always respect others’ privacy.”
United: “The use of small cameras or mobile devices for photography and video is permitted on board, provided that the purpose is capturing personal events. Photographing or recording other customers or airline personnel without their express consent is prohibited.”
Since the recent spate of high-profile videos, the airlines have started to reexamine their guidelines. An American spokesman, for instance, said that the airline could loosen its stance on video. In addition, he said that the carrier expects passengers will share their experiences on social media, even ones that may ding the company’s armor.
“The rules are being reviewed in light of the fact that everyone has a camera,” he said, “and they really can’t be enforced.”
Stanley reminds would-be documentarians that neither an employee nor a law-enforcement officer can confiscate your device. An officer can only take your gadget with a warrant. And no one for any reason can delete your images. To safeguard your material, the ACLU created the free Mobile Justice app, which streams the footage from your phone to the nonprofit organization’s servers.
If you happen to find yourself in the vicinity of a troubling situation, proceed with caution, experts advise: You do not want to escalate the situation or jeopardize your safety or the well-being of others.
“Use the tool after careful consideration of the circumstances,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “You could become a target of the violence.”
Witness.org, which trains citizens to use video to ignite change, offers an array of pointers and downloadable guides on its website, such as a blog post about obscuring identifiable features and the tip sheet, “Using Video for Human Rights Documentation.”
“Filming an incident of violence can put both the victim and the filmer at risk by exposing their location, identities and sensitive personal information,” said Jackie Zammuto, U.S. program manager at the site. “Put yourself in their shoes and think about what it might feel like to have this incident witnessed not only by people on the plane but by millions more online.”
In short, think before you share.
“We’re all publishers now and we have ethical responsibilities,” Jaffer said, “even on social media.”
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