Civil Liberties Snapshot: Photographers’ Rights Ignored

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

feature story in the Washington Post this week highlighted what has become a nationwide problem since 9/11: police and security officers interfering with the rights of people to take photographs. As the Post put it, “Almost nine years after the terrorist attacks, which ratcheted up security at government properties and transportation hubs, anyone photographing federal buildings, bridges, trains or airports runs the risk of being seen as a potential terrorist.”

Courts have long ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to take photographs in public places. Yet photographers continue to be hassled, with officers often citing “legal authority” they don’t actually have. As one photographer detained for several minutes told the Post (referring to uniformed security officers), "A lot of these guys have guns and are enforcing laws they obviously don't understand, and they are not to be reasoned with."

We’ve seen this very problem here in Washington. In one notable ACLU-WA case, University of Washington art professor Shirley Scheier gained a settlement after Snohomish police frisked, detained, and handcuffed her for over a half-hour for taking photos of power lines while on public property – for an art project.

In a previous incident which drew widespread attention, the ACLU-WA assisted Ian Spiers, a biracial photography student who was surrounded by law enforcement officials from several agencies when he set up his tripod to take photos at Seattle’s Ballard Locks – a popular tourist attraction. And we’ve heard from quite a few professional newspaper photographers and TV videographers that they’ve been hassled, too – while trying to do their jobs.

We all need to remember that taking photographs of objects or people in plain view is not a crime. Law enforcement should not presume that it is a suspicious act, and should not overreact by hassling – and detaining people – simply for taking pictures.

If you run into problems while taking photos in public places in Washington state, the ACLU-WA wants to hear from you.