The notion that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution possesses the authority to safeguard all types of speech made by an individual or corporations from government interference has long been a subject of vigorous debate. Throughout history, the First Amendment and its defence of freedom of speech have been consistently disputed, questioning the parameters of speech and expression and identifying where these boundaries are surpassed.
In 2017, independent filmmaker Gordon Price began production of a small-scale movie centred around a particular road in York County, Virginia. Price’s primary focus was the local legends of hauntings and unsolved murders associated with this stretch of land. During the filming process, Price chose to shoot scenes on Yorkfield Battlefield, located within the Colonial National Historical Park -an area accessible to the general public under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. In 2018, the film debuted, attracting an audience of approximately 250 individuals at a restaurant in Newport News, Virginia. However, shortly after the screening, Price received a violation notice for filming on National Park Service land without obtaining the requisite permit. According to the Permit-and-Fee regulations, any individual seeking to film for commercial purposes must secure a permit and remit the associated fee. Failure to comply with this requirement could result in a prison sentence of up to six months and imposition of fines.
In response, Price took steps to have the charge dismissed, asserting that the Permit-and-Fee code violated the First Amendment by impeding freedom of speech and expression. Although the criminal case was ultimately dismissed due to the government’s belief that prosecution would not serve the interests of justice, Price proceeded to file a civil complaint in the District Court. He intended to challenge the constitutionality of the permit-and-fee code within the District of Columbia's jurisdiction. In Price’s favour, the court granted his motion, deeming the permit-and-fee code unconstitutional for restricting public speech based on its content. Consequently, the ruling rendered the permit-and-fee code unenforceable.
However, the case proceeded to the D.C. Circuit, where the district court findings were ultimately overturned. The D.C. Circuit determined that the permit-and-fee requirements were constitutional and did not excessively restrict freedom of speech or expression. The court considered the permit prerequisites to be reasonable. Judge Tatel expressed a dissenting opinion, contending that the Supreme Court’s decision curtailed and encroached upon individuals’ rights to freedom of speech and expression, as protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, Judge Tatel observed that the permit-and-fee regulations imposed constraints on speech that far surpassed the government's interests.
The outcome and decision of the Supreme Court's decision are controversial as it provides the opportunity to limit freedom of speech and expression further and threatens journalists, content creators, artists, and activists from participating in public discourse and engaging in free speech. Under this decision, actions like a YouTuber filming in a national mall could come under fire as this person would technically profit off filming at government buildings or land.
The permit-and-fee codes were established before the emergence of platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and other online sites that provide opportunities for individuals to generate income. At the time of enacting these codes, the concept of millions of people having access to filming devices and the ability to monetize online videos was not foreseeable. With the advent of technology and monetization, permit-and-fee codes have become obsolete and unsuitable for today’s society and its prevailing social dynamics.
The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the permit-and-fee code warrants reconsideration as it threatens the future of vital public discourse derived from videos filmed on government land or featuring government officials. Video media holds significant value as media forms, offering firsthand accounts of unjust public incidents that can play pivotal roles in courtrooms nationwide, including the noteworthy example of the video capturing the murder of George Floyd. While playing a crucial role in securing convictions and igniting a global movement, it also fostered discussions on race and raised awareness about police brutality. The ability to film and produce media has evolved into an essential component of public dialogue and represents a new era of journalism accessible to all. Imposing restrictions on media production severely curtails freedom of speech. Such limitations may provide a glimpse into future regulations as technology advances, providing the general public with more tools to share meaningful speech and expressions from which society can significantly benefit.