The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has just filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County naming the county itself, the sheriff, and several deputies as defendants in a case of alleged infringement on photographers rights on behalf of three people, one a reporter, who say they were hassled by police for taking pictures of public places like courthouses and subways.
The cases in the suit, like many others, involve law enforcement officials not familiar with photographers’ rights, allegedly overstepping their boundaries in the line of duty. What does this mean? Consider the case of the reporter who says he was taking photographs of passing cars for a news story only to find himself surrounded by 8 deputies, who claimed that the fact he was shooting near a courthouse made his behavior suspicions and possibly signaled a terrorist intent.
Talk about going overboard!
In the decade since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, public photography of buildings and/or infrastructure has been assumed to be illegal among many shutterbugs and law enforcement officials alike. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
The bottom line is this: it is perfectly legal to photograph anything/anyone visible from a public space like a street, sidewalk, or park unless expressly prohibited. For structures, this includes government buildings, power pants, schools, and transportation hubs. As for people, children and government employees doing their jobs are fair game, too.
As for what is not allowed, it includes the following, going onto someone’s private property for the purposes of taking pictures, taking pictures where photography is explicitly banned (this may include military bases), and taking pictures after a police officer/other official orders you to stop as the photography is interfering with his/her ability to conduct official business. However, in regards to this reasoning, any thoughtful official will realize that abusing this ‘interference’ reason could be subject to public/media scrutiny and will use only when the interference is physically present.
For anyone stopped because of their photography, the ACLU advises one to stay calm, ask whether you are free to go or are being detained. If you get detained, immediately ask for clarification as to what you are being accused of and remind the police officer that public photography is legal.
Now,a s for what police cannot do, this includes searching your camera/phone without a warrant (police can confiscate it, though), deleting your photos/taking your film/memory card, or demanding that you do the same. On the other hand, police can ask to see your images, though you have the legal right to refuse this.
As for one last, very gray area: video recording. In some states, taking audio recordings (video itself is just as protected as still photography) can be considered wiretapping if the other people in the video do not realize that audio is being recorded. Laws on this vary from state to state, so go hereto see what is allowed in your state.
Needless to say, if you feel that your rights as a photographer have been violated, do not hesitate to make a formal complaint to the law enforcement agency who you feel committed the violation or contact the ACLU and/or the media.
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