Freedom Photo Finish

Snapshots of government


The federal government admits it: Taking pictures of government buildings isn't a crime.

The confession came in October, when the feds settled a lawsuit filed by the software developer and Libertarian Party activist Antonio Musumeci with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). Musumeci, who had been videotaping the November 2009 arrest of an activist distributing leaflets outside a federal courthouse in New York, was approached by agents of the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Protective Service (FPS), who arrested him and confiscated his camera. The charges were dropped, but Musumeci filed a civil suit to win an official admission that the harassment was illegitimate.

In the settlement, the FPS grants that the law it relied on in arresting Musumeci does not in fact "prohibit individuals from photographing (including motion photography) the exterior of federal courthouses from publicly accessible spaces." While the FPS does not explicitly mention other federal buildings, where official harassment of photographers and videographers is common, NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn thinks the settlement's impact will go beyond courthouses.

"The FPS guards federal buildings generally, not just federal courthouses," Dunn points out. "The regulation under which Mr. Musumeci was arrested applies to federal buildings generally, and the government says it agrees and recognizes that regulation does not bar photography in federal courthouses. That has to also mean it recognizes it does not bar photography at all, because nothing in the regulation speaks of courthouses."

The FPS will pay Musumeci's court costs plus $1,500, but it won't return his video card yet. It is still being held as evidence in the trial of the activist whose arrest he videotaped.  r