The American Civil Liberties Union has come out with a remarkable - and timely - resource in their piece "You Have Every Right to Photograph That Cop" (ACLU website - 9/7/11). Ten years ago tomorrow, my ability to cover the attack at the Pentagon was cut short by an overzealous FBI agent despite my having been in the same location for over 5 hours and behind a fence line. That had not been my first experience with overzealous police or federal authorities - in this case one who refused to provide his name and only flashed his badge - and it also has not been my last.
At right is a Supreme Court police officer approaching me to admonish me that cannot be where I am - the public front steps of the US Supreme Court - to take photographs - this, before 9/11, as if that's actually a valid excuse. It is not.
Countless times I have been directed (or watched others directed) by overzealous authorities with a badge (and sometimes a gun) to leave an area because we were press, while the general public was allowed to wander aimlessly in the area - or even shoot pictures with a point-and-shoot - and threatened with arrest if the directions were not heeded. This is, and has always been, unacceptable. Yet, I take high offense when the blanket excuse is "...you can't do that/be here because of national security..." .
The ACLU cites law enforcement programs that "suggest that photography is a 'precursor behavior' to terrorism, and direct the police to react accordingly." So is driving a car to your intended destination to commit terrorism, and feeding yourself during the process. Ludicrous, I know. Yet, it's the comparable. Further, anyone who really wants to take a photo can do so surreptitiously.
As someone who has worn a press credential for over 20 years, and who served two terms as the President of the White House News Photographers Association, I have seen too many egregious encroachments on the tenets of the First Amendment, and it's nice to see the ACLU taking a stand on this issue.
Be sure to read, print, and carry a copy of the ACLU's "Know Your Rights: Photographers" guide to "Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right – and that includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties."
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