The clip, uploaded Monday and viewed more than 250,000 times as of this morning, shows 23-year-old officer Patrick Pogan charging into Christopher Long, a 29-year-old from Hoboken, N.J. Long tries to steer clear of Pogan, but the officer runs into the cyclist and slams him to the ground. By Monday evening, Pogan had been placed on desk duty.
This clip, titled simply "Critical Mass Bicyclist Assaulted by NYPD," joins a long line of amateur video footage showing clashes between police and citizens. The most famous recent example is probably the 1991 Rodney King incident, but that's by no means the only one. In New York City alone, amateur videographers helped shed light on questionable police tactics during the 2004 Republican convention.
But the obvious difference today is that services like YouTube have made it possible for people to see these clips on demand, without waiting for a TV network to decide whether to air the footage.
One reason why YouTube has been able to emerge and flourish in the last few years is because the law -- at least in theory -- didn't require it to screen clips uploaded by consumers. Should the video end up proving libelous, or pirated, various federal laws appeared to immunize YouTube in court.
But there's been debate about whether YouTube should proactively ban certain clips, including violent, criminal, or other offensive material -- which potentially includes the "Critical Mass" clip. If nothing else, there's no dispute that it shows an act of violence.
In the U.S., YouTube's right to display clips like "Critical Mass" is protected by the First Amendment, but the same isn't so everywhere. In Italy, for instance, prosecutors are considering charging YouTube executives because a user posted a video of a disabled teen being bullied.
While there might be legitimate differences between kids bullying a disabled teen and a cop body-slamming a bicyclist, there are also key similarities. Certainly, a mandate to filter out "violent" clips, or footage showing potential crimes, would apply to both.
Even though it's easy to criticize YouTube for enabling cyberbullying -- or copyright infringement or other objectionable acts -- the platform has also enabled the widespread distribution of valuable material. Courts, in the U.S. and abroad, should consider the benefits of the platform in its current, mostly uncensored form, when considering whether to hold YouTube responsible for what users upload.