The Government's War on Cameras!


Who will watch the watchers? In a world of ubiquitous, hand-held digital cameras, that's not an abstract philosophical question. Police everywhere are cracking down on citizens using cameras to capture breaking news and law enforcement in action.

In 2009, police arrested blogger and freelance photographer Antonio Musumeci on the steps of a New York federal courthouse. His alleged crime? Unauthorized photography on federal property.

Police cuffed and arrested Musumeci, ultimately issuing him a citation. With the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, he forced a settlement in which the federal government agreed to issue a memo acknowledging that it is totally legal to film or photograph on federal property. 

Although the legal right to film on federal property now seems to be firmly established, many other questions about public photography still remain and place journalists and citizens in harm's way. Can you record a police encounter? Can you film on city or state property? What are a photographer's rights in so-called public spaces?

These questions will remain unanswered until a case reaches the Supreme Court, says UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, founder of the popular law blog The Volokh Conspiracy. Until then, it's up to people to know their rights and test the limits of free speech, even at the risk of harassment and arrest.

Who will watch the watchers? All of us, it turns out, but only if we're willing to fight for our rights.

Produced by Hawk Jensen and Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Jim Epstein and Jensen. About 7.30 minutes.

Read Reason magazine's January 2011 cover story, "The War on Cameras" and the companion piece "How to Record the Cops."

For coverage of the war on cameras, go here.

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NEXT: Battle of the Budgets

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  1. This commentary, by security expert Bruce Schneier is worth checking out:….._phot.html

    He makes this good point:

    “The 9/11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn’t known for its photography.”

    1. And I put it to you, what difference would it make if they did. You see, taking pictures in a public place is NOT an illegal activity. Even terrorists are allowed to do it. Are we to curtail the rights of law abiding people because they take part in some of the same LEGAL actions terrorists do? If a terrorist eats breakfast prior to committing a terrorist act, do we ban eating before noon?

      This is the PERFECT EXAMPLE of a knee jerk reaction that trades liberty for security.

      If the Government can film me in a public place, I, as the Government’s master, may certainly film them.

  2. Just as soon as I see the part of the republican constitution that forbids documenting the activities of governments, I’ll stop filming cops and officials.

  3. I have something to hide.

  4. Absent a Constitutional decision by the USSC, laws vary by State. In 2001, Abington MA cops successfully prosecuted a citizen for “illegal recording” of his encounter with them. He had been accusing them over an extended period of unprofessional conduct. Persistently ignored, he thought a recording would prove his charges.

    I would favor a right to record police encounters with the public on a First Amendment basis: “the “right of the people … to petition their government for a redress of grievances.” The right to petition against police misconduct is fatally handicapped if the cops can lie about what happened. Officials, courts, an (usually) juries tend to give cops the benefit of the doubt, *unless* a recording proves that the petitioner is telling the truth.

    Such a “right to petition” should be limited to actual reporting of misconduct and grievance; it should not cover, say, an Internet video of “Cops picking their noses.”

  5. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to solve the problem but we can for sure broaden the subject and try to fix it little by little. Think about it though, who’s going to watch those who are watching the watchers?

  6. Great article! I tried sending a longer comment earlier but this stupid thing marked it as spam.

  7. Just as soon as I see the part of the republican constitution that forbids documenting the activities of governments, I’ll stop filming cops and officials.
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