Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Washington Post Takes Up Photographers' Rights

Unless explicitly prohibited, photography is assumed to be legal in the U.S.

Yes, this article is a couple of weeks old, but it's intersting that a major U.S. Newspaper is taking up the case of photographers' rights.

For the full article, go here. For the gist and commentary, read on.

Ever since the 9/11 terror attacks, many civil libertarians have accused the government (under both Democratic and Republican leadership) of being overly vigilant at best and at worst, outright Big Brotherish. One unexpected target of this increased “vigilance” are people with cameras in public places.

Sure, there are very practical restrictions on photography, such as in preventing voyeurism and maintaining secrecy of sensitive military instillations. These are common sense restrictions. However, increased scrutiny of people with cameras in public places doing neither of these things (or anything remotely of the sort) is what has many people concerned.

To put it in the shortest, simplest way, people in the United States are allowed to photograph anything/anyone they wish so long as the person/thing is in public space (street, sidewalk, public park), is visible from such a space, and where no expectation of privacy exists (such as someone in a home but visible through a window). That's the law in its broadest sense. So when is taking pictures allowed and when is it prohibited? Bottom line: in America, the assumption is that, unless photography is explicitly prohibited, it is allowed.

Enter the attacks on photographers' rights.

The unfortunate truth is that, while both courts and law enforcement agencies have backed up the right to take photographs in public, word does not always make it to the police officers/security guards out on the beat. The result: people perfectly within their legal right to take pictures are being intimidated, detained, and sometimes even arrested for taking pictures where no legal authority to do so exists at all! A main focus of such false restrictions: government buildings (a local federal office building), transportation hubs (airports, train stations), and infrastructure (power plants).

So what can you do?

First, keep a cool head. Police are, at least on the spot, the law. Staying calm and keeping courteous can go a long way in getting out of an uncomfortable situation. Whatever you do, don't smart off, be honest about what you're doing (the truth is your friend), and, if told to stop taking pictures, just stop because failure to comply with a police order can be legal grounds for arrest. Unless you are out to martyr yourself on the altar of First Amendment rights, just seek to get out of the situation as easily as possible. True, while police have no legal right to take your camera and search images (they can take it, but need a warrant to do any searching), just showing the officer your pictures can defuse the situation quickly (what criminal would willingly do this?). As a last resort, if you are told to delete images, just do it, as there are many image recovery programs out there.

Confrontation over, if you feel as though your rights were violated, don't hesitate to file a formal complaint with the official's supervisor or even contact a lawyer/legal organization. The media (which lives on the First Amendment), would also be a willing ear for your story, too.

Yes, the world is becoming hostile to cameras, but America is not George Orwell's 1984 yet.

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