The pas­sen­ger’s dilemma: to record or not to record?

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AN­DREA SACHS an­drea.sachs@wash­post.com

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 13minute 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 con­sumer­friendly 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 pub­licpri­vate 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 high­pro­file 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.”

JOSHUA LOTT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Demon­stra­tors protest United Air­lines in April at O'Hare In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Chicago af­ter a high-pro­file in­ci­dent.

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