Photographers’ Rights

This blog entry is a little late today. I contacted a couple associates of mine who are familiar with the legal system with some questions for this post, but they’ve yet to respond.

In the recent years, there has been an alarming trend where some police are abusing their power of authority. It mainly stems from, I believe, a poor understanding of the laws and/or lack of proper training. There are cases where police try bar people from photographing buildings, people and even the police themselves, under the guise of “Homeland Security” and “privacy laws.”

They’re wrong.

That’s a broad statement to make, but a fairly accurate one. I’ve scrutinized the cases as they cropped up. Now, I want to be clear: I’m not saying the police were wrong to investigate. Far from it. Investigating is good. This duty that police are paid to do is what keeps us safer. But trying to bar photographers taking photos? More often than not, they’re incorrect in doing so. Forcing photographers to stop photographing? Ditto. Forcing photographers to delete photos? Ditto.

Videotaping is a bit of a stickier issue. Many states have wiretapping laws, and you’d be wise to educate yourself on your state’s. Some states say it’s okay to video a private conversation without obtaining permission if it’s in a public place, and have different definitions of what qualifies as “private.”

Other states, you can’t videotape without permission, although a few states have an exception where if you state “I am recording this” and nobody objects, it’s okay. And still other, it’s okay to videotape without permission if the audio is disabled. If you think you’ll ever have a reason to videotape people in public, check your state laws in advance. This also applies to camera phones.

I believe it’s important for any photographers to educate themselves on what their rights are, and have included a few links down below.

A very brief summary (more info in links provided below):
If you’re on public property, you may photograph people, buildings and, well, pretty much anything in sight. Even if it’s a federal building.
Police may not confiscate nor demand to view or delete pictures/videos on your camera or cellphone without a warrant.

While it might be tempting to be an ass and mouth off to the cops (even if you’re doing nothing illegal), I don’t advise it. Police, as I wrote above, sometimes will fabricate reasons to arrest you. Be polite and cooperative. If they ask for ID, produce it if you have one (even though you’re not legally required to). As my mom is fond of saying, “you get more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Photographers’ personal experience:

In the news:

Couple legal resources for you:

  • Krager’s PDF with fairly detailed legalties of your rights. Many photographers, including myself, carry this. Even if you don’t click the other links in this blog, please click on this one, print it and read it. Be smart. It might save you some legal trouble later down the road.
  • ACLU’s summary of your rights

That’s it in a nutshell. I’ll be revisiting this topic in the future, when my contacts get back to me with answers to my questions. If you have any, feel free to ask, and I’m happy to either research it or ask my contacts.

Has anyone had an encounter with the police? I’d love to hear about it.



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