GREENSBORO — Attorneys for the city of Greensboro have filed an appeal with the N.C. Supreme Court over a lower court’s ruling that city officials could watch but not publicly discuss police videos of a controversial 2016 arrest.
The gag order, first applied in 2018 by Guilford County Superior Court Judge Susan Bray and later upheld by the N.C. Court of Appeals, violates the City Council’s First Amendment rights and is unconstitutional, the city argues in a legal brief filed with the state Supreme Court.
The city is asking the Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision.
Zared Jones of Greensboro had alleged that police harassed him and his friends in downtown Greensboro in 2016, escalating tension and leading to their arrests. A 1-minute, 45-second video of the arrests was posted on YouTube, gaining public attention in 2017.
Under state law, police officers’ body-worn camera footage is not considered public nor a personnel record, and only those depicted in the video or their representative may view the footage, the Court of Appeals judge wrote.
In January 2018, Bray agreed to let the council and certain city officials view the body-worn camera footage but said they could only discuss it with each other. Any council member who violated the order was subject to a $500 fine and up to 30 days in prison, Bray ruled.
Council members, irritated over the ruling, had said earlier they would not view the videos under the gag order. But last week council members suggested they would be interested in viewing the videos.
According to the appeal filed Tuesday, city attorneys say:
- The Court of Appeals did not thoroughly consider the potential violation of constitutional rights that Bray’s motion may have committed.
- “Elected officials have fundamental speech rights with regard to matters of public concern, including allegations of police misconduct,” the city argues.
- The state statute restricting access to body-worn camera footage has never been tested in a high court, and “the proper interpretation of this statute is of major significance to the jurisprudence of the State; the Court of Appeals opinion should not stand as the only guidance on the scope of trial-court discretion to impose conditions on the release of such footage.”
The city’s brief to the Supreme Court also mentions a related case to underscore the importance of the issue.
Last week, Bray initiated a contempt of court action against one of Jones’ former attorneys, Graham Holt, because he recently sent an email to City Council in which he describes in detail what he saw on the videos. That email was later released as a public record and Bray contends the email violated the gag order when it became public.
“The city’s fears of criminal sanctions were well-founded,” city attorneys wrote.