Do You Know Your Rights as a Photographer?

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Unrest and calls for justice are still at a high both within Ferguson, MO and around the country as everybody following the Mike Brown story are asking the same question: “Why aren’t our rights being ignored?” Especially in the case of the press and photographers, there have been multiple videos and first-hand accounts of members of the press being directly targeted and threatened by officers. Why? We all know the answer to that: They want to stifle and censor the truth.

A badge doesn’t give anybody the right to exploit and abuse their powers and ignore their responsibilities, yet we’ve been reading about and watching that happen for the past two weeks. Whether you’re an amateur or professional, you deserve to know your rights as a photographer. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) updated their list of photographers’ rights last month, yet it’s become extra relevant and crucial in light of these events. You can read a bullet point summary below, as well as an animated video in collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord community to educate yourselves on what is and isn’t allowed when you have a camera in your hand. You can read the full, detailed list on the ACLU website.

  • When in public spaces where you are lawfully present you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view.
  • When you are on private property, the property owner may set rules about the taking of photographs.
  • Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant.
  • Police may not delete your photographs or video under any circumstances. 
  • Police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.
  • Note that the right to photograph does not give you a right to break any other laws.
  • If you are stopped or detained for taking photographs:
    Always remain polite and never physically resist a police officer.
    If stopped for photography, the right question to ask is, “am I free to go?” If the officer says no, then you are being detained, something that under the law an officer cannot do without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so. Until you ask to leave, your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal.
    If you are detained, politely ask what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
  • Special considerations when videotaping:
    With regards to videotaping, there is an important legal distinction between a visual photographic record (fully protected) and the audio portion of a videotape, which some states have tried to regulate under state wiretapping laws.
    Such laws are generally intended to accomplish the important privacy-protecting goal of prohibiting audio “bugging” of private conversations. However, in nearly all cases audio recording the police is legal.
    In states that allow recording with the consent of just one party to the conversation, you can tape your own interactions with officers without violating wiretap statutes (since you are one of the parties).
    In situations where you are an observer but not a part of the conversation, or in states where all parties to a conversation must consent to taping, the legality of taping will depend on whether the state’s prohibition on taping applies only when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. But no state court has held that police officers performing their job in public have a reasonable expectation.
    The ACLU believes that laws that ban the taping of public officials’ public statements without their consent violate the First Amendment. A summary of state wiretapping laws can be found here.

[via ACLU]

Geoff Henao

Geoff Henao is a writer/kinda photographer affiliated with the Chicago collective LOD. His interests include film, punk rock, cute girls, graphic novels, video games, and the Chicago Bulls. He's funny sometimes.

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