Don’t shoot? But it’s a public space

Mind your camera when you’re traveling this summer.

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Taking an innocent snapshot in a public area may get you in trouble, even if photography is allowed. It almost landed Ryan Miklus behind bars when he flew from Phoenix to Reno with his parents recently.

When Miklus tried to videotape an altercation between his mother and a TSA agent, another officer tried to stop him. “You are not allowed to film,” the officer says on the video. “You need to go. You cannot film us.”

“Where does it say that?” Miklus asks. “Show me the law. Show it to me and I’ll stop.”

The agent doesn’t answer, but leaves and returns with several airline employees, one of whom tells Miklus that it’s “against the law” to take photos at a security checkpoint.

“Put down the camera!” the employee orders. Miklus continues taping. A police officer later refuses to arrest him.

Such incidents are becoming increasingly common, making shutterbugs hesitant to take pictures that they’re well within their rights to take. They include security guards harassing a photographer shooting in a Los Angeles park and a man being threatened for videotaping a whale in the Florida Keys. TSA screening areas are a flash point for these encounters, with officers sometimes threatening passengers, blocking their view or citing nonexistent rules in an effort to force them to stop taking photos.

“I used to deal with one of these a month,” says Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). “Then it was weekly. Now it’s almost every day. Citizens are being told that they can’t take pictures out in public — whether it’s a building, a bridge or a train.”

Travelers are confused. Bridget Garrity, an attorney from Torrington, Conn., recently spotted a sign at BWI Marshall Airport suggesting that taking photos of TSA screeners is illegal. “It was hung on the wall right above the entry to the security lanes for the machines,” she says. “It did have some reference to a federal code, but I couldn’t get it all down.” Garrity was tempted to take a picture of the sign, but was afraid that she might be breaking the law.

Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for BWI, confirmed the signs near the screening area, saying that they’re there because “TSA typically discourages photography at its checkpoints.”

Why the crackdown on photography? Carlos Miller, a Miami-based multimedia journalist and author of the blog Photography Is Not a Crime, says that law enforcement agencies have felt threatened by photographers since the videotape of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King made the rounds in 1991. It accelerated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has spun out of control with the development of social media, location-based technology and cellphones with easy-to-use digital cameras. “Cops feel as if they have to protect themselves,” he says.

There’s a second reason why photography in public places is frowned upon, according to Miller and others. Officials assume that there’s a link between photography and terrorism, so anyone taking pictures of airports, screening areas, parks, bridges or any other site that terrorists could put in their cross hairs becomes a suspect, they say.

The Miklus incident has prompted the TSA to review its policy on photography at screening areas, according to a post on the agency’s Web site. Many agency-watchers worry that the government will try to ban photography, but when I asked the TSA about the review, it said that the statement on the Web site has been misinterpreted.

“We recognize that using video and photography equipment is a constitutionally protected activity,” TSA spokesman Greg Soule told me.

The agency is only reviewing its guidance to officers, he said, “to ensure consistent application” of its regulations. TSA posted a clarification on its site shortly after my inquiry.

So what are the rules? And what should you do if you’re told to stop filming or photographing?

Osterreicher says that there are only two public areas in the United States where you can’t shoot pictures: military bases and nuclear facilities. “The warnings are clearly posted,” he says. “Otherwise, if the public is allowed, then so are their rights.”

But officials don’t necessarily agree with that broad interpretation. For example, the TSA’s current policy is that photography at security screening areas is permitted, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the screening process. But what, exactly, constitutes interference? The agency also prohibits photography of its screening equipment, specifically the screen that shows scanned items. But that rule would appear to contradict federal law, since the screening equipment is in a public area.

And while it’s okay to take personal photographs in state and national parks, commercial photos usually require a permit. Park police who don’t want you to take pictures can exploit that rule by drawing a fine line between an amateur and a professional photographer.

Indeed, what constitutes the difference? Is it the tripod, the price of the camera or the quality of the footage? When I tried to take photos in Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna, Fla., last year, a park official told me that I would have to pay $75 for a photography permit. But I could avoid the fee if I left some of my equipment in the car — specifically my tripod.

It’s an odd predicament, since we travel in a surveillance society. Law enforcement agencies can place cameras in public areas and monitor our comings and goings, but when we try to take pictures, we’re sometimes told that it’s not allowed. Why the double standard? Should you stand up for your constitutional rights the next time you try to take a snapshot of your family at the airport and a stern-faced security agent tells you that it’s illegal?

If you’re on vacation, it’s probably not worth it. That’s the advice Osterreicher gives NPPA members, too: It’s not worth a trip to jail. “Be courteous, be respectful and don’t get into an argument,” he says. “Should you have the time and want to push the issue, ask to speak to a supervisor or report the incident to that agency as soon as possible. Otherwise, they have a badge and you may lose the argument.”

“Just say, ‘Yes, officer, thank you, officer.’ And walk away.”

51 thoughts on “Don’t shoot? But it’s a public space

  1. “Garrity was tempted to take a picture of the sign, but was afraid that she might be breaking the law.”

    This reminds me of when a friend and I attempted to visit St. Paul Cathedral in London a few years ago. When we got there and saw that they were charging £10 to enter and then wouldn’t even let us take photos of the historic and gorgeous structure, we decided to save the money and leave. On our way out, I snapped a quick photo (without flash) of the “No photography” sign for a few reasons – rebellion, to show my friends back home why I declined to visit the cathedral, and because the phrasing of the sign made me laugh somehow. Someone shouted from the desk: “No cameras!”

    Other churches and buildings in London are happy to let you photograph – as long as you pay a fee for the privilege. Still others don’t have a policy in place. (As of my last visit in 2009.) Guess which ones I linger in longest and most enjoy. They may not be as grand or famous as St. Paul, but they have their own gorgeousness.

    A British friend of mine makes a point of taking a photo somewhere in the building whenever she encounters a “no photos” sign. It doesn’t matter if it’s a back hallway in between exhibits, she just likes to thumb her nose at the restriction.

    1. St. Paul’s is one of the busier churches in London and has a lot of services.  Did it ever occur to you that one of the reasons they don’t want people popping the flash all the time in an active church is to keep down the distractions for those who are actually worshiping there?
      Instead of “having your way” and taking flash pictures after being directed not to, why not sit down and enjoy the ambiance and take in a service?  Even if you don’t share the same faith, it can be a wonderful experience, especially if its a choral service, and a better souvenir than a picture you probably didn’t take all that well to begin with.  Pay the darn 50p for a professionally photographed postcard, if you need the visual reminder.  They have better lighting, and probably a better angle than you’ve got, anyway.

  2. Museums typically don’t allow photography because the items are copywritten. This makes sense. Also, many people don’t understand that a flash (well, several thousand flashes over time) damage artwork.

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the recent Miami incident. Police officers threatened picture takers immediately following a fatal shooting. Not just threatened with arrest mind you. These officers WERE POINTING GUNS at the people taking pictures. Some cameras were apparently smashed by these officers and some news footage was confiscated by the police department. Don’t believe such a thing oculd happen? No worries – do a quick google or bing on “miami police camera news”

    1. The copyright issue you mention makes no sense.  Taking a photo does not violate the copyright.  If you publish that photo for a use not covered as an exception to copyright, then you have a violation.

      If the museums are private, they can certainly prohibit photography and those who violate the restriction as subject to trespass.

      1. Actually

        Merely making any copy of a copyrightedwork can be a violation of that copyright.  Publication of the work is a further violation.  That’s why Kinko’s has copyright violation signs on its copy machines

      1. Copyright terms are so long nowadays that lots of museums have at least some works that are still under copyright.

    2. Most museums don’t allow flash photography because repeated exposure to the excessive light from the flash is damaging to old artwork.

      1. And in the end, it’s easier to ban ALL photography than just flash photography because people will just use flash.

        1. I just got back from Italy with my best friend. When we were in the Vatican museums, she asked me to turn off her flash as she did not know how (it is a simple flash button). As soon as I’d done that, there were several other people asking me to do the same for their cameras (also simple flash buttons). Given the amount of people who were clueless as to how to turn off the auto-flash, I well believe that banning all photography is easier.

          [grumble] Though, really, people should read their user manuals and never have technology smarter than they are. [/grumble]

    3. On the museum issue, close, but not quite.  Due to the age of the works, they are usually not under copyright.  However, the owners of the works DO want to sell, prints, catalogs, etc.  Since they own (or are renting) the works, they are well within their rights to prohibit photography of them; your agreement not to take photos is part of the bargain when you choose to visit the works.

      1. Closer, but it probably depends on how you paid to get into the museum.  In a truly private museum your correct, the owner could dictate that you cover yourself in chocolate pudding before entering and it would be perfectly legal.  However a lot of Museums aren’t truly private property so then it may be a bit murkier.  I’d guess if you loan some artwork to the Smithsonian, you would have to live with your artwork being photographed (at least without a flash).  

        1. The Smithsonian also restricts photography in special exhibits.  (Got a mild scolding at the Sackler once…)  My state art museum; same thing.  Govt’s can choose to subject itself to private contract rules just like any other contract party.  It would be hard to argue in court that there is a compelling speech issue in allowing photography of private works of art in public museums. 

          To relate back to the original topic: If the TSA was operated by private contractors, there WOULD be a compelling public speech interest that WOULD override the commercial interest. (Security and Law Enforcement issues and all…)

    4. Well the Miami thingy SOUNDS like it should be true…but that doesn’t make it true.  Read the FULL story. 

      Police responded to a fatal shooting immediately after it happened and people are pointing black thingys at them.  Is the suspect still there, in the crowd, or has he fled?  Are they cameras or guns?  Of course you can sit back and be critical of others because you’re all safe at your desk behind a computer, not working an active homicide.  

      If I were a cop I would ask, “These can’t be normal people because only some twisted, sick SOB would want pictures of some tragic victim who just got murdered on their cell phone — so use extreme caution with these crazies.”

      1. People love a good train wreck.

        And some cops loving the chance to pull their gun on people for any reason whatsoever.

      2. Apologist.
        So, journalists who follow the if it bleeds it leads line and their audiences are a bunch of sickos?

  3. There are two very different issues rolled together here.  Some venues don’t want tourists using tripods, partly because the user might be a professional photographer wanting to take pro-quality pictures to sell later, without giving a cut to the owner of the property being photographed.  (Vatican City falls into this category–cameras, yes; but cameras-on-tripods, out of the question.)
    But photographing TSA thugs in the airport is an entirely different matter!  If you are wrongly being told that you may not photograph, why should you stop?  Let them wrongly arrest you, and then sue the daylights out of them… 

    1. I’m always amused at the way people think they can identify a “pro” by his or her gear.  Tripods, detachable lenses, etc.  You must be a “pro” because no sane person would have an interest in getting a good photograph as a hobby, right?

      In the mean time, hordes of photo enthusiasts interested in HDR are wandering around with tripods and detachable lenses.  Oh, the horror! They’re all professionals – even though they’ve never sold a single photo.

    2. The tripod rules are also in place to help keep the flow of visitors moving… I can only imagine the chaos in the Vatican Museum that would result if the tourists brought tripods along; that place is packed enough already.

  4. Thank you for answering the general question I asked in one of my comments yesterday.  I do like taking pictures on my travels and have been confused by what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. 

  5. Okay hear this!..A statute, a code…those are NOT laws, okay?  A law is a decision agreed upon by the governing party elected by the people… So, hear this, and attorneys know this too, but ignore it the judge can use ‘color of law’ or ‘abuse of decretion’.. Again, there are few laws.  However TSA has been given a long lease, kind of like I gave my daughter, and she is totally out of control and could hurt herself and others. Meantime, your part…keep pushing the envelope…test them whenever you get the chance…challenge them, harrass them use your voice, your camera, whatever, risk arrest, not fly, do not comply…They were put in there (the TSA, and the courts) illegally..or not decided upon by the people.  Never, never give up your liberties like this, inch by inch..or inch by inch your neck collar will tighten until you finally choke and perish….

    1. A “statute” most certainly is a law, as are some “codes.”

      For instance, passed federal legislation with ongoing effect (as opposed to one-offs like the annual budget) are organized into something called the United States Code (so, if you ever see X USC Y.Z, that is a citation to Title X, Section Y.Z, of the United States Code, which in turn is simply copied from language in a specific passed bills.)  Basically, the USC is nothing more than a handy organizational system so that you, citizen, can actually find a law, instead of having to comb through hundreds of years worth of bills, many of which amend an earlier law.  (A piece of legislation might say: “10 USC 4358.C.1 is hereby changed to read: …”)  Here in North Carolina, that same function is performed by the North Carolina General Statutes.  On a city level, it’s commonly called the Municipal Code.

      Now, in addition, you have many “codes”, such as the Code of Federal Regulations or Building Codes.  The CFR are the product of federal departments that develop rules that in turn implement laws.  Basically, congress delegates some of its power to federal employees (who are hired for specific expertise) who are then instructed to create rules that fulfill certain goals.  (i.e., the FAA is told by law to prohibit “deceptive practices” in regards to the sale of airfare; the FAA then develops CFR sections informing airlines what that means so it won’t be a big shock when the FAA does something.  The FAA is also responsible for the Federal Aviation Regulations, and the Aeronautical Information Manual.  The FAR is simply a specific collection of rules, and the AIM is general guidelines for the safe operation of an aircraft.)  Certainly if you disagree with the part of the CFR, or are cited for violating part of it, one avenue is to file a lawsuit alleging that the regulatory body did not carry out the mandate detailed in whatever actual law that part of the CFR is citing that it’s authority resides in.  In addition, changes to the CFR must go through an extensive public comment process, and the courts look to the comments (and how the rulemaking body treated them) when deciding if the rulemaking body acted correctly.  Basically, from your point of view as a citizen, the CFR has the force of law, but they are easier to dispute and overturn in court.

      Things like building codes also have the force of law.  They usually become law via a piece of legislation consisting of something like: “The 2005 edition of the Model Southern Building Code is hereby incorporated into the Municiburg Code by reference…”  (The legislation would then detail who enforces the code, and the consequences for violating it.)

  6. Here’s some news about a recent high-profile case of harassment of photographers in Maryland.  Maryland Transportation Authority police detained and harassed two photographers who were taking pictures of the Baltimore Light Rail line.  The ACLU of Maryland threatened to sue, and the MTA immediately backed down, with the head of MTA stating, “”We don’t have a policy restricting photography.  The actions of some of these officers are not
    reflective of the agency stance.”  What’s ridiculous is that this exact same sequence of events happened, with the same agency, in 2006.   Why aren’t police officers being trained, specifically, in the Constitutional protections afforded photography?  Police and TSA try to frighten people out of participating in this perfectly legal activity every day by harassing, questioning, and lying to photographers.,0,2129369.story,0,6046710.story

  7. Personally I feel Miklus and his family were on the prowl for an altercation. It’s people like them that ruin it and make it difficult for the rest of us. But … take away the situation that the family set up … would you want someone taking a photo of you, your child or grandchild in public? Who knows what they’re going to do with it. I’m not saying there it should be against the law. I’m just giving another point of view … as a bystander.

    1. “. . . would you want someone taking a photo of you, your child or grandchild in public? Who knows what they’re going to do with it.”

      Nah, I’d much rather they stick their hands down my pants.  Much less traumatic than having someone snap a public picture of me in a public place.

      1. Hey, Crazy Lisa’s back! 

        Yes, yes, they stick their hands down your pants.  Except they don’t.  Just FYI, repeating a lie doesn’t make it true.  Now throw out that the TSA are a bunch of “rapists” and “sexually assulting people” since that’s normally what follows in your illogical rants…..

        1. Except they do, and there are plenty of stories out there stating as much.

          Just as there are plenty of stories that prove TSA either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about their own rules.

          But keep apologizing, David, if it makes you feel better about the direction this country is headed.

        2. They DO pull the waist band of your pants out from your body and look down them, however.  That’s happened to me twice.

        3. I’d suggest that you refrain from making personal insults; if you disagree with Lisa, fine. However, personal insults aren’t warranted (and probably not allowed by the TOS for this site).

          If you can’t participate in the intelligent discourse that takes place in the comments without the personal insults, perhaps you should find a different forum to join, where such comments and vitriol are welcomed. 4chan, perhaps?

        4. You are dead wrong.  They do stick their hands down people’s pants.  They’ve done it to me personally.  They also shove their hands between our legs and touch our genitals through our clothes, without our consent. This has also been done to me personally.  That is undeniably sexual assault. The fact that you can’t see that says a whole lot about you.  Anything for security, right?

    2. Being “on the prowl for an altercation” is explicitly allowed by the First Amendment.  You, citizen, have explicitly been given the right (and some would say the duty) to test the authority of those that have been given the powers to govern us.

      If you (or your children) are in a PUBLIC place, the PUBLIC (and, for that matter, the government) has the right to take, and publish, pictures of you with few limitations.  If someone wants to take my picture, or a picture of my children… why not?  I’m having trouble thinking what sort of direct harm could come to me as a result.

        1. It’s so easy to look up things these days that it surprises me when people make blatant statements like this without any research. Branson Airport recently became the FIRST airport built WITHOUT public funds in over 30 years. So, I’d be willing to bet all the airports around you are indeed, at least partially publicly funded.

          And the gist of this discussion has to do with incidents taking place “in public”. Meaning that the people being photographed have no expectation of privacy. The lawyers among us will better be able to discuss whether or not it makes a difference if you’re on private versus public property, but I’m willing to bet that there’s arguments on both sides.

        2. While airports may be built and/or operated by a regional economic authority (vs. a municipal govt. directly) they are still public spaces that provide public services.  Screening areas in particular are staffed by govt. employees, contain nothing but govt.-owned equipment, are funded by tax dollars, and the customers of said spaces are on their way to use transportation services, which are public accommodations highly regulated by the govt.; it is a legitimate citizen-run oversight activity to record the actions of govt. employees performing actions to fulfill their law-enforcement duties.

    3. Cathi, you and your family have no expectation of privacy in a public place or quasi-public space.  This is and has been the law for a very long time.  See, e.g., Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967) for a good discussion of expectation of privacy.  So if you don’t want someone taking a pic of you or your grandchildren, you have to stay home. 

      Photographing police or TSA screeners does not make it difficult for the rest of us.  It is the one way we have to protect us from those who use the color of law against us.  It could also absolve the police and TSA screeners from false claims but they don’t seem to care about that.  I wonder why…

  8. It’s been illegal to take photographs in the New York subways for decades. It’s also illegal to take photographs in most live theaters and museums. New Jersey is considering a law to make it illegal to photograph random children in parks or on the street. The “right to photograph” is definitely not in the Bill of Rights. Sorry.

    1. I guess you figure if you state something with enough authority, people will believe you? Maybe before the Internet. A quick search reveals that it is indeed quite legal to take non-commercial photographs anywhere on the NYC transit system, including the subways.

    2. And the New Jersey bill is quickly going nowhere. Can you imagine having to get permission from every parent of every child at the Jersey Shore who’s in the background of your picture of your niece building a sand castle? That’s how the law was proposed. Ridiculous! You seem to be the master of the “half-truth”, Tom. Just put forth enough information to support your stance, but not bothering to complete the picture.

  9. Unbelievable!!!! It seems to be reaching a point where travelers are creating scenes. If someone is not familiar with the process, it is their responsibility to learn about it. The mother kept mentioning a dress yet she was in pants and a blouse. I’m either confused or simply don’t understand. In all my travels, I’ve never had such a problem. 

  10. I’ve never had the need or reason to take a picture at a security checkpoint, nor have I had any problems.  Some of the TSA employees are rude, some are control freaks, and some are incompetent, but I’ve never had what someone would call an “incident”.  I hope it stays that way.

  11. I encountered this often when I was a news photographer years ago. One situation was really fascinating. A Sheriff’s deputy was escorting a murder defendant down the hallway of the public city-county building. The deputy never really like me. He told me “no pictures.” I knew there was no such rule, so I continued shoot. Here’s where it got interesting. He let go of the defendant – just let him go to wander the halls. And the deputy grabbed me and took me into custody.

    I never figured out who finally got the defendant and got him back to his cell. But I was taken before the judge, who promptly released me and my film – admonishing the deputy. We ran the photo on page one. We would never have run it otherwise. It wasn’t a story until the deputy made it one.

  12. When I was a kid growing up in the ‘cold war’ years…  freedom loving countries like the USA used to chastise the USSR for the same type of ‘restrictions’ on their citizens – what have we become?

  13. Restricting people not to take pictures for ‘potential’ terroristic attacks?  Believe me terrorists don’t depend on pictures to blow up a building!  Screening machines has it’s value but explosives can be snuck in anywhere anytime.  Does the TSA monitor the companies that provides services to airplanes such as food deliverers?  Instead of the TSA concentrating on passengers they should concentrate more towards people who are in direct contact with the planes themselves!

  14. If you are in a public place, it is your constitutional right to take photographs! You are not breaking any laws! It doesn’t matter if you’re in an airport, a train station, or a bus depot! And to Cathi,I would advise you to take your child somewhere like a cave if you don’t want to risk having said child’s photograph taken. While you want to stop photography out of paranoia, I somehow suspect that if some photographer took a shot of some fountain and your child just happened to be in it, and this photographer ended up making a gazillion dollars off this shot, you’d be one of the first people in line with their hand out for a cut!
    If photographers are not in the way of police doing their job, are polite and courteous to peoples personal space, and using a little common sense when shooting. then stand up for your rights!

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