Wick Communications

You can’t shoot that!

In Photography on 30 Jul 2010 at 8:48 am

Is it against the law to photograph federal buildings? Not generally, no. But don’t expect the cop on the beat to know that.

Law enforcement officials – especially federal law enforcement authorities – are jumpy and have been for nine years. And with good reason. The events of Sept. 11 changed the way Americans look at their security. They caused many if not all of us to rethink what security means in a free society. Many well-meaning men and women with badges are of a mind to tip the balance too far toward the safe side and there are ever-more stories of ordinary Americans finding themselves in a legal hassle over inoccuous photos.

That is a problem for us professional journalists. We’ve been told we can shoot most anything as long as we do so on public property. But the explosion of digital photography – now almost everyone has a camera in the form of a cell phone with them at all times – has made the Secret Service and the ordinary beat cop nervous.

Annys Shin’s story in the Washington Post last week detailed many instances of police hassling photographers with some vague notion of personal or national security in mind…

I want everyone to take a look at this. It’s Shin’s list of 10 photos that caused trouble for the shooter. The photo above was taken by Wayan Vota, of two officers enforcing speeding rules in Vota’s neighborhood. One officer told the photographer he was not allowed to shoot them. That officer was wrong. Courts and even the Washington D.C. police have consistently ruled that police on a public street have no expectation of privacy.

Shin says many times law enforcement is just trying to do the right thing but is ignorant of the law:

Photographers say police need to be told explicitly not to prohibit photography, because officers often don’t respond well to impromptu citizen lectures on constitutional law.

This isn’t merely an academic concern. In June, Wick journalist and Tucson Business intern Frankie Brun was attempting to shoot the site of a new hotel when men in an unmarked car told him it was against the law to shoot federal courthouses (the hotel site was next to a juvenile courthouse.) Brun did the right thing. He got the shot then obeyed the officers and returned to editors.

Don’t be surprised if someone in charge of something tells you it’s illegal to photograph that something. Just remember they are most likely wrong.

— Clay

  1. From thee May 21 edition of the Nogales International, Nogales, Ariz.

    Freedom loses in a climate of government fear

    By Hugh Holub

    Terrorist acts by themselves rarely do much damage in the grand scheme of things. More people each year are killed in America by deer jumping in front of their cars than by al-Qaeda. But the goal of terrorism is to change the way people live and work, causing more damage to a society by its response to the terrorists.

    In the name of fighting terrorism, Americans have seen steady erosion on our freedom. Illegal wire-tapping and body scanners are just two intrusions. Most people accept these as being justified to protect the country. But a line has to be drawn before America turns into a police state.

    Nogales International Publisher and Editor Manuel Coppola tried to take a picture at the roundabout at Terrace Avenue on May 14 to illustrate the lack of traffic during the “Day Without A Mexican” boycott.

    Coppola was approached by an agent from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and prohibited from taking photos from the roundabout.

    Coppola tells about how he went toe-to-toe with the CPB agent, which is what newspaper people tend to do when confronted by an obvious attempt by the government to restrict freedom of the press. He finally got the CPB agent to call the supervisor who then had to call his supervisor who said he could shoot his photos.

    But that wasn’t enough for the second supervisor. He called yet another supervisor, who told him to wait and he would get back to him. Coppola waited and waited until he had to go pick up his child from school. So Coppola did not get to shoot the picture from the angle he wanted.

    An hour later (unaware of Coppola’s experience) I tried to shoot from the roundabout down to the port to illustrate the lack of cars crossing the border.

    A CPB agent shouted, “You can’t take pictures here.”

    I was then surrounded by agents, one of whom took my camera and deleted my picture of the port. As the author of a not so tongue-in-cheek “how-to” piece about how to avoid being shot by the police, I retreated quietly. (See http://www.bandersnatch.com)

    CBP Spokesman Brian Levin, in response to an e-mail from Coppola about the incident, responded: “We are working to ensure our officers are aware that when media shows up unannounced, they need to contact me for approval and to coordinate.”

    Levin went on: “For both media and those not associated with media, depending on what is being photographed, our officers may be concerned about operational safety (if specific officers are being singled out for photographs, for example, we don’t want their images to be broadcast without their permission).”

    “We don’t know who is taking photos of our operations and our employees, so we have to challenge people discovered taking photos/video to ensure there are no concerns,” Levin added.

    Now here’s the point: A news event was occurring at the port and journalists do not generally make appointments with an agency’s press liaison to cover the news and shoot some pictures.

    Last we knew, the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry is public property meaning we the taxpayers own it.

    So is Terrace Avenue, whether it’s GSA that owns it or the City of Nogales.

    One can understand the desire of not shooting pictures of law enforcement officers, and newspaper people understand this as well. But instead of asking what was going on, and being cooperative, the federal response was “no pictures.” Period.

    Instead of the benefit of the doubt being in favor of freedom of the press, the agents acted as if Coppola and I were engaging in some kind of terrorism-related activity.

    When our government functions in that climate of fear and stomps on our constitutional rights, the terrorists win.

    (Holub is a resident of Tubac and the editor/publisher of the Frumious Bandersnatch. Read his regular column, “On the Line,” which is published every other Tuesday in the Nogales International.)

  2. Since, these incidents, the CBP port director has assured us there is no problem with photographing the port of entry.
    Good practice, however, is to call the PIO beforehand if we know we are going to be shooting.

  3. I am both shocked and not really surprised, Manny. (If that makes sense.) It’s a strange world, isn’t it? Thanks for doing what’s right.

  4. I was the photographer of the photo above. And no matter if its a neighbourhood or a port, you can take a photo of anything and anyone from public space (ie streetm roundabout, sidewalk). In fact, the public is given the specific right to photograph government employees in the execution of their official duties (ie. police officers).

  5. Thanks Wayan. And sorry for the delay posting your comment. It got routed to the spam folder.

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