In what the New York Times calls a “startling legal reversal,” a federal judge has vacated his own order that had limited the New York police in videotaping people at public gatherings. In February Judge Charles S. Haight Jr., issued what seemed an ironclad, somewhat scathing rebuke of the police, ruling that its surveillance teams could videotape protesters only if there was an indication that unlawful activity might be under way. He cited two 2005 events — an antiwar march in Harlem and a protest by homeless people in front of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's town house — in concluding that police had broken their own guidelines for political surveillance by videotaping people who were lawfully exercising their right to free speech.
Yesterday, Haight said he had received fresh accounts of the demonstrations from city lawyers that directly contradicted accounts provided by lawyers for the plaintiffs. The new accounts suggested that unlawful activity might indeed have been occurring. Haight had said that he would hold in contempt any police official who violated the rules. Yesterday, he reversed himself, saying that he lacked the power to enforce the guidelines alone: The police could be liable for punishment only if they violated the United States Constitution, not his order.