Boston Marathon bombing investigation reveals security state’s hypocrisy toward photographers (shooters, know your rights)

It’s become a little too common a story:

  1. police thugs beating the hell out of a citizen (who may or may not have done anything)
  2. citizen with camera takes pictures or video of police abuse
  3. police arrest photographer
  4. because apparently it’s illegal to record police brutality

The new trend is to make photographing the police illegal, although they will also arrest you for “obstructing law enforcement” – something you can apparently do from a distance. The Ministry of Homeland Security even wants us to view public displays of photography as potential terrorist activity.

But in Boston last week, the authorities were singing a very different tune, begging citizens to review their stills and video from the site of the Marathon bombings for clues to the identity of the attackers. How convenient. And utterly hypocritical. Carlos Miller over at PhotographyIsNotACrime is dead on the money.

After more than a decade of profiling citizens with cameras as potential terrorists, law enforcement officials are now hoping these same citizens with cameras will help them nab the culprits behind the Boston Marathon terrorist explosions.

Adding to the hypocrisy is that these same authorities will most likely start clamping down on citizens with cameras more than ever once the smoke clears and we once again become a nation of paranoids willing to give up our freedoms in exchange for some type of perceived security.

After all, that is exactly how it played out in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks where it became impossible to photograph buildings, trains or airplanes without drawing the suspicion of authorities as potential terrorists.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security along with the FBI routinely advises that photography in public must be treated as suspicious activity – even after a federal lawsuit forced DHS to acknowledge there is nothing illegal about photographing federal buildings.

CATEGORY: PhotographyI have friends who have been hassled by the police and private security for engaging in perfectly legal activity, and I even had a rent-a-cop try to chase me away from a parking deck once even though it wasn’t the subject of my shooting. Since the authorities are unacquainted with the Constitution and the law, it’s up to us to help them.

So, if you’re a shooter, read this from the ACLU. In fact, print out a copy and stick it in your camera bag. While we’re at it, here’s a nicely constructed one-pager called The Photographer’s Right from Bert Krages, a nationally recognized attorney and photographers’ advocate. If you’re confronted by police or security, be polite, but feel free to assert your basic Constitutional rights.

Thanks to Lisa Wright for pointing me at this story and to Stuart O’Steen for the Photographer’s Right link.

4 replies »

  1. Thanks for posting this, Sam. It’s a huge problem. Having said that, I don’t think the *trend* is toward making photographing police illegal. In fact, i think it’s just the opposite. The link you posted to is a bit old, and since then, all but the Michael Hyde case (which goes back to 2001) have been settled, in one way or another, in favor of the photographers/videographers. If anything, it’s becoming more and more clear to law enforcement that photography in places where those being photographed or otherwise recorded have no expectation of privacy is absolutely legal.

    The problem, of course, is that not all cops have gotten this message — especially the ones who think “contempt of cop” is against the law; or at least against their law when they think they’re the law. So, it’s still dangerous to have a run-in with a cop or anyone else who thinks a photographer or videographer is not entitled to shoot in public places.

    I ran into one of these people on the parade of lights shoot we did together, and didn’t press it, because the confrontation could have escalated, and I’m too old to be in any stupid fistfights. I also ran into it when shooting a neighborhood for a client when a guy popped out of his house and came out fighting mad. I don’t know why people think they’re entitled to control the photons bouncing off of them and their property, but they do seem to.

    I carry a declaration of rights with me should I need it, but I also just try to be polite and friendly and offer to share my photos/videos with the angry person. I heard a great idea on this, recently. A photographer said that he sets his screen display to black and white, even though the raw files are going to his card in color. He said that B&W tends to scream “art” to people, and they give him more leeway if they equate photography with art instead of with the snapshots they take. He shows them a photo he took on his B&W screen, and says they often back off at that point.

    • Re: the trend, I guess it seems to me like winning some cases hasn’t stemmed the authorities’ appetite for trying to making it illegal. Cops charging shooters with “obstruction,” states passing laws, and Homeland Security playing a soft messaging game, all of that is a little chilling. I’d argue that this very conversation is evidence of this.

      But maybe it’s moving in the right direction legally. I hope you’re right on that.

      Your advice on handling situations is spot-on, though. I’m not a confrontational jackass and have learned to make use of my diplomacy skills. Still, it’s nice to have the law on your side (and a copy of it in your bag) should diplomacy fail, huh?

  2. Sam, I’m not at all sure that there has been a movement toward making public photography illegal. The Illinois law, as I understand it, is an old one and based on an unclear wiretapping law, though there has definitely been pressure from the police unions to try to outlaw shooting police in public. But that won’t happen, because the Supreme Court has made it very clear that it won’t happen. In other states, I believe that, if there’s been a movement, it’s been a movement to repeal laws that have been found unconstitutional.

    Still, it’s clearly a problem, and while I think the problem is getting better, it’s still very possible to run into some asshole, wearing a badge or not, who can fuck up your day. I think we need laws expressly making public photography legal, and outlining very clearly for cops that they may not harass you or confiscate your camera, your film, or your capture card. Winning a suit against the police may be somewhat satisfying, but it’s best not to ever have to go to court in the first place.

    And kudos to you and others who keep bringing this to the ;public’s attention.