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First Amendment Rights and Photography

FYI regarding Photography and the First Amendment from Photo District News article by Jay Mallin.

NPPA Seminar Examines Erosion Of First Amendment Rights

March 17, 2005

By Jay Mallin

Whether they’re photographing subway tunnels in New York, a dull federal building in Washington, or a scenic wooden bridge in Oregon, photographers are finding that what is public isn’t so public anymore. Instead, people with badges and guns—sometimes really big guns—seem to be out to limit old-line First Amendment rights, starting with the closest photographer.

What to do about that erosion of rights was one of the biggest audience questions during discussions at a First Amendment seminar at the NPPA’s Northern Short Course, held in Reston, Virginia March 11.

Much of the material covered the pre-9/11 fare: How far can I go in photographing people who are on private property? (It depends on where you’re standing and what’s visible from the street.) When can private security guards demand my film? (Answer: never.) But Washington, DC, attorney Kurt Wimmer, who led the session, also faced questions about post-9/11 issues he said are becoming increasingly common.

The problem, both Wimmer and members of the audience made clear, is that “national security” concerns have led the authorities to believe they can stop photographers pretty much whenever they feel like it. “It’s gotten really crazy,” said Wimmer. “There’s this shared sense of increased power” on the part of law enforcement officials that seems to lead them to stopping photographers who are capturing clearly public scenes.

“There’s no basis in law for that,” added Wimmer, a former NPPA member and now an attorney with the law firm of Covington & Burling.

So given that, for instance, it’s still legal to photograph a building in downtown Washington, D.C., from the sidewalk—an activity that security guards may object to—what’s a photographer to do when ordered to stop? Audience members had different suggestions, ranging from a low-key approach (“I only need to make a few frames and I’ll get out of your way”) to something more assertive (“You look ’em in the eye and you push back”).

Although photographers may decide to stand up for their rights using one strategy or another, Wimmer warned that being right doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome. He suggested photographers try to work with authorities beforehand, or have attorneys on call if they are publication staffers. But he said that when conflict with police or other authority figures occurs, “once it’s happening to you it’s very hard to do anything effective. If you’re a freelancer [without quick access to lawyers] it’s even worse.”

“Often we’ve seen them cuff people and put them in the car,” then release them after a few hours or so with no charges, he said. “Which, unfortunately, they can get away with.”

For photographers who need help, he said, one potential source is NPPA, which will often try to find photographers pro-bono legal assistance. Another resource is the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, on the Web at www.rcfp.org, which operates a hotline journalists can call with questions involving access and newsgathering.

But Wimmer says photographers should realize that even if police are out of line, it could be difficult to go back after the fact and make them pay for it. “Unfortunately it’s a game in which they hold most of the cards.”

— Jay Mallin is a Washington, D.C.-based photographer and frequent contributor to PDN.

by [a former member] at 2005-04-25 19:28:00 UTC (ed. Jun 24 2006 ) New York , United States | Bookmark | | Report spam→

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