’In some cases, legal foundations are lacking’

 (Image: Pixabay CC0)

(Image: Pixabay CC0)

Whether demonstrations against Corona measures or for climate protection - all citizens may peacefully assemble and publicly express their opinions. This is regulated by the Basic Law. But are the police allowed to take photos of the events at demonstrations, for example as part of their public relations work on Facebook or Twitter? Does the Basic Law’s freedom of assembly guarantee a right to anonymity? And what legal standards apply when police authorities report? These are the questions that Dr. Carsten Schier examines in his now published dissertation, "Conflicts with Freedom of Assembly in Police Public Relations Work in Social Media.

"At gatherings, mutual opinions sometimes clash, so the police authorities should take a neutral position. For participants, published photos, for example, can mean considerable disadvantages," explains the legal trainee, who earned his doctorate at the Institute for Public Law and Politics at the WWU. "The police have a balancing act to perform during demonstrations."

On the one hand, police agencies have been successfully using Twitter and Co. for several years to provide information about major events such as rampages, manhunts, accident prevention or victim protection. In addition to photos of rescued cats, the published posts and tweets also include comments on the police’s own operations. On the other hand, as a state actor, the police are bound by the constitutional principles of neutrality, objectivity and accuracy. Especially at gatherings, law enforcement officers must respect the fundamental rights of others - those of the demonstrators.

In December 2019, the Ministry of the Interior of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia issued a decree stating that police authorities may not publish images of demonstrators. The decree stems from a ruling by the Gelsenkirchen Administrative Court in October 2018. During a peaceful demonstration "against the right" in Essen in May 2018, police officers photographed participants in the demonstration and disseminated the photos on Facebook and Twitter. Two participants who were recognizable in the pictures filed a complaint against this. The Gelsenkirchen Administrative Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, as the employer of the police officers, appealed against the ruling. The Münster Higher Administrative Court rejected the appeal. Such recordings were not necessary for the police’s public relations work and violated the constitutionally protected freedom of assembly, according to the September 2019 ruling. The Assembly Act only allows the police to make film and audio recordings for the purpose of averting danger.

Furthermore, the defendant state could not invoke the Art Copyright Act or the general authority to act as a state to provide information. This does not make effective and up-to-date police public relations work impossible, the judges state in the ruling.

How does the Münster police behave, for example? "In principle, we report on police operations cross-medially. We only report on gatherings on an ad hoc basis, i.e. when the police have to take active action. The reporting essentially relates to explaining the actions of the police or to possible restrictions and obstructions that result from the course of operations for the population. These include obstructions to road traffic. These are then also disseminated via the social media channels," explains Jan Schabacker, press spokesman for the Münster police headquarters. "We do not publish pictures of gatherings in which participants could possibly be recognized."

In Carsten Schier’s view, the decree is not sufficient to regulate police public relations work in social media at gatherings. "In some cases, there is no legal basis for this type of public relations work, and it also interferes with fundamental rights. If it remains the case that the police act solely on the basis of a decree, there are uncertainties with regard to the legality of the use of social media." Decrees primarily bind police authorities internally. They do not aim to create legal certainty for affected citizens. "That’s why it would make sense to regulate police action in these cases in a parliamentary act. An amendment to the Police Act or the Assembly Act, for example, would be conceivable," emphasizes Carsten Schier.

This article is from the university newspaper know

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