A couple of years ago I was outside the White House taking pictures of a bomb disposal robot that was being used to inspect a suspicious package. A metro police officer told several of us we weren’t allowed to photograph the device, but shortly after the incident was over, I asked one of the Secret Service “handlers” if I could get some shots. He told me, “Sure, go ahead,” and even offered to move the device around for me.
I relate this story because it is so similar to a number of recent incidents around the country in which both photojournalists and ordinary citizens have been detained, arrested or injured while taking photographs in public places.
In Milwaukee last week reporters were standing outside police lines photographing a house fire. A police officer asked the photographers to back up, which they did, while they continued filming. One of the journalists was then arrested, apparently for not backing up fast enough, although the semi-official reason was that the officer was trying to protect the privacy of the home owners.
Nevertheless, a federal appellate court in Boston just last month ruled that the right to film police in the performance of their public duties in a public space is a “basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.”
Now, some will argue that if the police tell you not to do something, you have to stop. But what if the police are wrong, and what you are doing is perfectly legal, and not causing anyone any harm? And there is a world of difference between the police telling you to do something, like, “move along,” and telling you not to do something, like “stop taking photographs.”
Last year, a reporter in Columbus, Ohio, was “detained” while photographing police trying to round up some stray cows. Officials said they were concerned about the student photographer’s safety, although he was some 100 yards from where the action was taking place. So I have the feeling they were more concerned about themselves looking silly, than they were about the safety of the photojournalist.
And, of course, as soon as the photographer was detained, that guaranteed the pictures would be all over the news, and around the world, in a matter of minutes.
In all of these instances one has to ask, “Where is the harm in taking pictures?” And like they say in basketball, “no harm, no foul.”