TSA Watch: Take a picture of a checkpoint, go to jail?

Bridget Garrity recently saw a sign at Baltimore-Washington International Airport that made her turn off her cell phone a little faster.

“It said it’s against the law to take a photo or video of TSA doing their job,” she says.

Garrity wanted to take a snapshot of the sign and send it to me, but she was afraid she might be breaking the law by doing that, too. And she knows a thing or two about rules; she’s a lawyer.

TSA is pretty clear about what is — and isn’t — allowed at checkpoints. You can take pictures as long as it doesn’t interfere with the screening process.

So what about those warnings? I asked the agency, and was told the signs weren’t TSA’s. So I checked with the airport.

A BWI representative said the signs were posted by the airport. They say:

NOTICE

Photographing or videotaping of security procedures, personnel or equipment is strictly prohibited.

COMAR 11 03.01.09 B (2)

COMAR is the Code of Maryland Regulations. Here’s the actual rule.

Notice anything? B (2) doesn’t mention anything about photography, just interference with screeners.

Is photography the same thing as interference? Not the last time I checked.

Here’s the interesting thing: TSA’s “photos are permitted” rule has one other exception, besides interfering with screeners, an action that it doesn’t clearly define and refused to define when I asked the agency. And that is, when it conflicts with state or local ordinances.

So a TSA screener at BWI could threaten to throw you in jail for taking his picture, citing BWI’s erroneous interpretation of Maryland law, and TSA would support him, citing its exception to its photography rules.

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A little confusing, isn’t it? But it probably conflicts with federal law, according to attorney and photography law expert Bert Krages.

The general rule in the United States is that anyone may take photographs of whatever they want when they are in a public place or places where they have permission to take photographs.

Absent a specific legal prohibition such as a statute or ordinance, you are legally entitled to take photographs. Examples of places that are traditionally considered public are streets, sidewalks, and public parks.

I’m fascinated by this apparent conflict, so I set out to do a broader story on photography in public places. I’ll have that article tomorrow.

I wanted to also bring in one of the voices of support. There are well-meaning people who believe photography can endanger our security. Ann Wolfer is an Army officer who left a comment on my Facebook page, explaining the problem.

In the very vast majority of cases where a security incident has occurred, it was determined that there had been a significant amount of surveillance and practice ahead of time, often involving video and photos.

I get that you feel your right to embarrass the government on YouTube is being infringed upon, but when these security incidents happen and hours of videos and hundreds of photos surface, the public asks (rightfully so) how the heck these people were permitted to gather all of this information without anyone apprehending them.

People just trying to take a picture of a bridge have good reason to be angry about being prevented. People trying to create an incident at a TSA check point so they can get themselves on the news, should stop trying to make this an issue about their “rights.”

She is, of course, referring to the Ryan Miklus incident — a confrontation I’ll revisit in tomorrow’s story.

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If there’s a proven link between terrorism and photography, should we put our cameras away and let the TSA do its job? Or is our right to photograph agents in a public place so fundamental to our democracy that we should live with the consequences, whatever they may be?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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