Protecting The Rights of Camera-Toting Tourists in D.C.

by Jamison Koehler on July 27, 2010

Anyone who has ever visited the Internet is now familiar with the large number of videotapes capturing police officers running amok on hapless citizens.  A couple of weeks ago, for example, I posted a video of the Toronto woman being arrested for blowing bubbles in the general direction of the man who has now become known as the “Bubbles” cop. I have not posted some of the more graphic and disturbing videos; for example, one of a bicyclist being run down by a police cruiser or the man who is now virtually brain dead after being slammed into a concrete wall. And, of course, there is always that most famous video, the one that captured the beating of Rodney King.

While D.C. undoubtedly has its own share of overzealous law enforcement personnel whose misdeeds will eventually find their way onto the Internet, our nation’s capital also has a more unique problem. With the many monuments and other tourist destinations, there have to be more cameras out on the street per capita than in any other city. Following the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and with all three branches of our government situated in the city, there are also a lot of security concerns.  It is therefore no surprise that innocent people toting cameras often come into conflict with overzealous law enforcement personnel.

The Washington Post reported yesterday on one case in which a Federal Protective Service officer accosted a D.C. woman for attempting to photograph the Department of Transportation headquarters.  The woman noted that she was on a public street and that a photograph of the same building was featured on the Department’s website.   When the officer told her it was illegal to photograph federal buildings, she asked him what law he was referring to.  The officer informed her that he was citing Title 18 of the U.S. Code and I guarantee he said it in that low, serious way that conveys such authority.  Although you have to give the officer credit for knowing the correct number, Title 18 is the name of the entire body of U.S. criminal law.  And there is no such law within that vast collection of offenses.

The right to take photographs in public places has always been protected by the First Amendment.  Even with enhanced security concerns following 9/11, it still is.  To their credit, a number of law enforcement agencies have recently reiterated this right. Last year, for example, the New York City police department issued a directive to all officers reminding them that photography is “rarely unlawful” and that officers have no right to demand to see photos or to delete them.  The problem, according to the Post, is that these policies don’t always filter down to the over zealous officer on the street.

In 1968, my grandmother was visiting Prague when the Soviet tanks marched in.  My grandmother watched in horror from her tour bus as Russian soldiers gunned down innocent citizens on the street.  A Russian soldier spotted her through the window with her camera at the ready.  He boarded the bus and opened my grandmother’s camera so that the film was exposed.

Clearly, we are not the Soviet Union or one of its satellite states, and it is good news that law enforcement agencies are aware of the problem and have been trying to minimize officer misconduct.  But perhaps more is needed.

I have always wondered who could possibly watch all the photographs D.C. tourists take during their stay here. One remedy I suggest is that offending officers be required to participate in a photograph-watching service offered by the city.  Tourists could bring all of their photographs to a central location at the end of their trip and have a captive audience of offending officers ooh and aah at every photograph. The service could help promote tourism in our city. Participating officers might also learn a little bit more about both the people who visit our city and the city itself. Finally, you know for sure that the families and friends of the tourists back home would be eternally grateful to us.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Windypundit July 27, 2010 at 9:45 am

I’m an amateur photographer, so I appreciate your drawing attention to this issue. As I understand it, the general rule is that if you are allowed to be in some location, you are allowed to take pictures from there of everything you can see. However, locations with restricted access such as courtrooms, military bases, areas cordoned off by the police, and all private property may restrict photography as a condition of entry. Bert Krages’ site has a nice summary of the rights of photographers.

Booker July 27, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Jamison,

If this topic is of interest to you, please take a look at the work journalist Carlos Miller has done at Photography is Not a Crime (carlosmiller.com). He has documented dozens of incidents, several from the DC area.

This is becoming quite a hot topic issue, and starting to gain the attention of several national media outlets.

Booker

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