Photography In Public Is Not A Crime

By Zachary Knight, Techdirt.August 22, 2012 at 05:03PM

Sadly, we talk way too often about police arresting people for doing nothing other than taking a picture or filming them. The police officers being filmed and photographed make these arrests using various excuses, but frequently the charges get dropped for lack of merit. The reason charges rarely stick when an officer is filmed is because filming police, or anyone in a public space, is not illegal. Some people may not like it, but it is a fact.

The New York Times is waking up to this fact that photography is not a crime. In an interview with Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counselor for the National Press Photographers Association, they get down to the nitty gritty of the legalities surrounding this age old tradition. They also talk a bit about just why such arrests are happening more frequently.

Since 9/11, there’s been an incredible number of incidents where photographers are being interfered with and arrested for doing nothing other than taking pictures or recording video in public places.

It’s not just news photographers who should be concerned with this. I think every citizen should be concerned. Tourists taking pictures are being told by police, security guards and sometimes other citizens, “Sorry, you can’t take a picture here.” When asked why, they say, “Well, don’t you remember 9/11?”

I haven’t really thought of criminalizing photography as something to do with 9/11 before. I know that a lot of our rights have been eroded since that day, but the photography aspect never really clicked until now. Just as Mickey can’t make heads nor tails of this argument, I am struggling to find a connection here. I don’t recall cameras being a part of the plots to destroy the Twin Towers, Pentagon or White House.

Of course there could be more reasons for this increase in arresting photographers. Mickey suspects that part of the reason is the proliferation of the camera. Pretty much everyone with a smart phone has a camera capable of taking some very high quality pictures. Prior to this boom, the police had some modicum of control over the press. They knew the press wasn’t going to be everywhere and were used to not being under constant recordable surveillance by the public. Now that anyone could be filming them or taking their picture, they are more on edge and more prone to lashing out.

When this happens, it is important for those accused to know their rights. However, it is also important for the police to know the public’s rights as well. While you, as a photographer, may know that you have the right to take pictures or film in a public space, some officers may not know or may have forgotten that fact. That is why the Mickey and others have been working with police to keep officers reminded of that right.

Q. After photographers were stopped from photographing the police clearing Occupy Wall Street protestors from Zuccotti Park, you and representatives of a media coalition including The Times, met with the police commissioner Ray Kelly. What happened at that meeting?

A. It was on Nov. 23. I asked the commissioner if he would reissue the “finest message” from 1999 that dealt with the police cooperating with the press. He did that. It was read at 10 consecutive roll calls in every single station house and precinct.

The finest message is a policy statement on police interactions with the press. It states that officers are not to interfere with videotaping and photographing in public places. It also reminds officers that they have an obligation to assist the press whenever possible. This is very similar to the recent news when the DC police chief laid down the law on filming of officers.

Hopefully, continually repeating this message will help slow down this barrage of arrests for photographing the police. As more officers are reminded of the rights of the cameras-wielding public, we will hopefully start to see fewer future incidents. It would be great if other police departments across the nation follow the lead of NY and DC police in proactively spreading the word about the rights of the public to record and photograph the police.

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