Friday, July 23, 2010

Shooting Pictures in Public Places Is Legal

Popular Mechanics, of all publications, offers a rational guide to when and where it's legal to take photographs and video. It's a timely topic, in light of BP's attempts to get local law enforcement agencies to scare away photojournalists, and video shooters who have had their equipment confiscated by cops who didn't want cameras pointing at them.

(See our recent blog post on this topic: "Journalists vs. Law Enforcement.")

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds' (pictured) conclusion serves as the title of his essay: "Taking Photos in Public Places Is Not a Crime."

The ubiquity of pocket-sized cameras these days seems to correlate with the growing squeamishness of security officials who seem to think that they have the right to prevent people from taking pictures or video on public property. Reynolds sets them straight.

Here's the take away:

Shooting pictures in public places is perceived by guardians of public safety as a percursor to terrorism, but "having lots of cameras in the hands of citizens makes us more, rather than less, safe."

Legally, it's pretty much always okay to take photos in a public place as long as you're not physically interfering with traffic or police operations.

Neither the Patriot Act nor the Homeland Security Act restricts photography.

The bad news: Although hassling picture takers is generally illegal, "it's hard for the average citizen to get redress in court. How do you calculate the value of deleted snapshots or photos never taken in the first place?"

The solution? Better educate law enforcement and security workers, not just in the top ranks but also at the bottom of the chain of command, since those are the ones most likely to erroneously harass you.

"The officers who crack down on photographers no doubt believe they are protecting public safety. But evidence that photography might be useful to terrorists is slim. Terrorists don't typically photograph targets in advance."

In the case of police objecting to being filmed by citizens while doing their duties: "Though one can understand their skittishness, the fact is, our ability to document the actions of public officials is an important freedom, one that can serve as a check against abuses."

So what to do if a cop tries to prevent you from shooting stills or video?

First, be polite. Security people have tough jobs and probably mean well. Ask them what legal authority they have to make you stop. (If you're in a public place, like a street, a park, etc., they have none; if you're in a private place, such as a shopping mall, they may have a basis for banning pictures.) Those hassled by security guards [should] threaten to call law enforcement. If it's an actual police officer who's telling you to stop shooting, ask to speak to a superior. And remember--you never have a legal duty to delete pictures you've taken.
"We need better education among security guards and law enforcement," Reynolds concludes. "Trying to block photography in public places is not only heavy-handed and wrong but, thanks to technology, basically useless. With the proliferation of cameras in just about every device we carry, digital photography has become too ubiquitous to stop. Let's have a truce in the war on photography and set our sights on the real bad guys. Who, it seems, don't carry cameras anyway."

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