Civil Liberties

Right to Take Photos of Federal Buildings Vindicated


A legal fight I wrote about in Reason magazine's August-September issue and blogged about here is resolved with a victory for justice and sanity, as reported at the New York Times site:

Under the settlement, announced Monday by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Federal Protective Service said that it would inform its officers and employees in writing of the "public's general right to photograph the exterior of federal courthouses from publicly accessible spaces" and remind them that "there are currently no general security regulations prohibiting exterior photography by individuals from publicly accessible spaces, absent a written local rule, regulation or order."

The settlement, filed on Friday, ended alawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security by Antonio Musumeci, 29, of Edgewater, N.J. He was arrested Nov. 9, 2009, as he videotaped a demonstrator in front of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse at 500 Pearl Street. His principal camera was confiscated but he recorded the encounter on a second camera. On two later occasions, he was also threatened with arrest….

On behalf of the Federal Protective Service, Michael Keegan, the chief of public and legislative affairs, said in a statement that the "settlement of Mr. Musumeci's lawsuit clarifies that protecting public safety is fully compatible with the need to grant public access to federal facilities, including photography of the exterior of federal buildings."

At issue in the case was a federal regulation that was cited in the arrest of Mr. Musumeci but that seems — on the face of it — not to have prohibited what he was doing. It says, in part, that "persons entering in or on federal property may take photographs" of "building entrances, lobbies, foyers, corridors or auditoriums for news purposes." Mr. Musumeci told the arresting officers that he worked for the radio talk program Free Talk Live. He was given a ticket and released on the spot. His account appeared on his Blog of Bile.

As part of the settlement, the Federal Protective Service said it construed the regulation "not to prohibit individuals from photographing (including motion photography) the exterior of federal courthouses from publicly accessible spaces."

Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal director of the civil liberties union and lead counsel in the case, said in a telephone interview that the settlement could be interpreted to apply to any federal building anywhere in the country under the aegis of the protective service. Because the regulation speaks broadly of federal property — not only courthouses — Mr. Dunn said the settlement was "tantamount to a recognition that there is no restriction on the photography of federal buildings from public places."

A harrowing and complicated account by another libertarian activist, George Donnelly, who ran afoul of attempted enforcement of non-existent laws against photographing federal buildings, including some jail time, accusations of assaulting a marshal, and what Donnelly insists was a coerced plea agreement. Donnelly did not get legal help from a branch of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and that sort of thing does make all the difference. My blogging on Donnelly's initial arrest. The arbitrary and lawless choices of a pissed-off "peace officer" can create all sorts of hell in a citizen's life; let's hope this settlement will sink in to the heads of a future cop who tries to stop a citizen from taking a picture or video in public,

NEXT: Tyranny Goes Global

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  1. Too lazy to look it up, but it makes one wonder what the politics of the two individuals tended toward.

    The NY arm of the ACLU goes to bat for one, and the PA arm lets the other one twist in the wind…

  2. George and I share similar beliefs. Market anarchists.

  3. let’s hope this settlement will sink in to the heads of a future cop who tries to stop a citizen from taking a picture or video in public

    I wish hope sprang eternal, but I don’t have even a glimmer this will affect these trogs one iota.


    1. True, as long as they bear no personal consequences for this kind of stuff, I doubt their behavior will change. Qualified immunity FTW!

  4. I often photograph the exterior and interior of public and private buildings and infrastructure from public property or private property that I haven’t been denied access to, purely for artistic purposes. All forms of photography and recording should be considered speech and protected by the first amendment. The idea that only “members of the press” have a valid reason to photograph is a load of shit, because anyone that wishes to communicate is participating in the press. And the fuck with any photography restrictions due to certain places or things being “sensitive” for security considerations.

    1. That is what I was wondering. Is “press” indicated by intent to publish? Because if that is the case then just about everyone is a member of the press as it is with the prominence of YouTube and other social media.

      Freedom of the Press shouldn’t require a namebadge that says PRESS on it.

      1. The press is anyone that wants to use some form of media to communicate- publishing or not. A guy with a duplicator is as valid of a form of speech as any major publishing house. Pamphlets and papers were yesterdays blogging.

        1. In this world “the press” means “company with a legal department prepared to fight in court.”

  5. (including motion photography)

    Even if it gets uploaded to that newfangled inartubez thingy?

  6. The really retarded thing is that everyone with a cell phone has a camera. So basically, everyone has a camera on them at all times. Why would the dipshit cops even think they could stop photography in the first place?

    1. The more difficult it is to enforce a law, the greater the authority required.

  7. This is good news for freedom and great news for me personally. I’ve got to defend myself in court in the near future for giving a cop the middle finger in the finance district. My chances look better if the judges there respect the 1st Amendment.

    1. So, contempt of cop is a chargeable offense now?

      1. Yes. And so is assaulting an officer’s night stick with your head. Get with the program….

    2. giving a cop the middle finger in the finance district

      So that’s what you kids are calling it these days?

      1. Which- the cop, the middle finger, or the finance district?

        The area of town where women exchange sexual services for money or blow wasn’t called the finance district in your day?

  8. Geez.

    I almost got in trouble for accidentally taking a picture of a police station once. (It was across the street behind the fountain I was aiming at.)

    But that was in Romania, which at the time was still behind the Iron Curtain.

    1. Ain’t it great to live in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”?

  9. Oh, now it’s OK to take pictures of the First Daughters undressing in the windows of the White House. Don’t you people ever think about the unintended consequences?

    1. That would’ve been a lot better in the last administration.

    2. Dang Hobie!

      Are you okay? Usually when someone fails that hard there’s at least some blood. Well, it looks like you’re going to be okay. Don’t worry you’ll be back to sucking hard in no time.

  10. Personally I know a guy is gay when we meet and i feel the need to check my fly~ghsde

  11. This really sucks.

  12. This comes from the Hollywood gimick in every heist/assassination pic. You always have to have the ‘preparation & planning montage‘. It’s the fucking law!

    So if movie crooks and terrorists have to do it – it is duty of every cop and security guard to interfer so the real terrorists and crooks don’t have photos to put on the wall of their hideout and puzzle over or draw lines on. They won’t be able to find the chink in armor of security theatre.
    They’ll be freaking blind!
    Think of the lives saved!

  13. let’s hope this settlement will sink in to the heads of a future cop who tries to stop a citizen from taking a picture or video in public.

    Yeah, I’m not putting my money on that line. I’ll also not hold my breath waiting for it.

    I am quite confident we will, before long, be reading yet another story of some asshole cop hassling someone for having the sheer audacity to take a photo of a building in public in broad daylight.

  14. I don’t think that informing officers in writing is enough. The memo should be stapled to their foreheads.

  15. Amplifying on Spartacus…

    In Reverse. Written with Small Words. So they can read it. In a mirror.

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