When Miklus tried to videotape an altercation between his mother and a TSA agent, another officer tried to stop him. “You are not allowed to film,” the officer says on the video. “You need to go. You cannot film us.”
“Where does it say that?” Miklus asks. “Show me the law. Show it to me and I’ll stop.”
The agent doesn’t answer, but leaves and returns with several airline employees, one of whom tells Miklus that it’s “against the law” to take photos at a security checkpoint.
“Put down the camera!” the employee orders. Miklus continues taping. A police officer later refuses to arrest him.
Such incidents are becoming increasingly common, making shutterbugs hesitant to take pictures that they’re well within their rights to take. They include security guards harassing a photographer shooting in a Los Angeles park and a man being threatened for videotaping a whale in the Florida Keys. TSA screening areas are a flash point for these encounters, with officers sometimes threatening passengers, blocking their view or citing nonexistent rules in an effort to force them to stop taking photos.
“I used to deal with one of these a month,” says Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). “Then it was weekly. Now it’s almost every day. Citizens are being told that they can’t take pictures out in public — whether it’s a building, a bridge or a train.”
Travelers are confused. Bridget Garrity, an attorney from Torrington, Conn., recently spotted a sign at BWI Marshall Airport suggesting that taking photos of TSA screeners is illegal. “It was hung on the wall right above the entry to the security lanes for the machines,” she says. “It did have some reference to a federal code, but I couldn’t get it all down.” Garrity was tempted to take a picture of the sign, but was afraid that she might be breaking the law.
Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for BWI, confirmed the signs near the screening area, saying that they’re there because “TSA typically discourages photography at its checkpoints.”
Why the crackdown on photography? Carlos Miller, a Miami-based multimedia journalist and author of the blog Photography Is Not a Crime, says that law enforcement agencies have felt threatened by photographers since the videotape of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King made the rounds in 1991. It accelerated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has spun out of control with the development of social media, location-based technology and cellphones with easy-to-use digital cameras. “Cops feel as if they have to protect themselves,” he says.
There’s a second reason why photography in public places is frowned upon, according to Miller and others. Officials assume that there’s a link between photography and terrorism, so anyone taking pictures of airports, screening areas, parks, bridges or any other site that terrorists could put in their cross hairs becomes a suspect, they say.