Drop That Camera!

Snapshot rights

The Department of Homeland Security seems to believe that national security requires the government to seize photographers’ memory cards on public streets. A federal lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in April may change their minds.

The plaintiff is Antonio Musumeci, a New Jersey software programmer and blogger who on November 9, 2009, filmed the arrest of an activist advocating jury nullification in a public plaza outside a federal courthouse in Manhattan. Musumeci was then arrested, detained, and ticketed, and an employee of the Federal Protective Service (a sub-agency of Homeland Security) confiscated Musumeci’s memory card.

Musumeci was arrested under a law that restricts photography on federal property. But the law explicitly allows photography in “building entrances, lobbies, foyers, corridors, or auditoriums for news purposes.” The statute also says public warning must be posted on federal property where photography is prohibited, which was not the case in the plaza where Musumeci was arrested. As the NYCLU notes, photography restrictions are applied inconsistently in different areas outside federal courthouses.

The charge against Musumeci was dismissed in March. Musumeci is taking the government to court to seek “declaratory and injunctive relief that will allow him to film and take photographs in public areas outside federal buildings where pedestrians have unrestricted access, as well as compensatory damages for his unlawful arrest.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, told the New York Daily News she hopes the case establishes that “people have a clear right to use cameras in public places without being hassled and arrested by federal agents or police.” 

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