Civil Liberties

Right to Take Photos of Federal Buildings Vindicated

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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,