Correction to This Article
This article on restrictions imposed on photographers outside federal buildings incorrectly referred to a federal courthouse in Silver Spring. The courthouse referred to is a Maryland district court.
Freedom of photography: Police, security often clamp down despite public right

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; B02

A few weeks ago, on his way to work, Matt Urick stopped to snap a few pictures of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's headquarters. He thought the building was ugly but might make for an interesting photo. The uniformed officer who ran up to him didn't agree. He told Urick he was not allowed to photograph federal buildings.

Urick wanted to tell the guard that there are pictures of the building on HUD's Web site, that every angle of the building is visible in street views on Google Maps and that he was merely an amateur photographer, not a threat. But Urick kept all this to himself.

(Examples of photos that got people in trouble with the police)

"A lot of these guys have guns and are enforcing laws they obviously don't understand, and they are not to be reasoned with," he said. After detaining Urick for a few minutes and conferring with a colleague on a radio, the officer let him go.

Courts have long ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to take photographs in public places. Even after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement agencies have reiterated that right in official policies.

But in practice, those rules don't always filter down to police officers and security guards who continue to restrict photographers, often citing authority they don't have. Almost nine years after the terrorist attacks, which ratcheted up security at government properties and transportation hubs, anyone photographing federal buildings, bridges, trains or airports runs the risk of being seen as a potential terrorist.

(Can an entire downtown be declared a no-photo zone?)

Reliable statistics on detentions and arrests of photographers are hard to come by, but photographers, their advocates and even police agree that confrontations still occur frequently. Photographers had run-ins with police before the 2001 attacks, but constitutional lawyers say the combination of heightened security concerns and the spread of digital cameras has made such incidents more common.

In the past month, in addition to Urick's encounter, a retired oceanographer said he was threatened with arrest for snapping pictures of a federal courthouse in Silver Spring, and an Alexandria man was briefly detained for photographing police making a traffic stop in Georgetown.

(Traffic stop video sparks debate over police use of wiretap laws)

Law enforcement officials have a hard time explaining the gap between policy and practice. The disconnect, legal experts say, may stem from a dearth of guidelines about how to balance security concerns with civil liberties.

"Security guards are often given few rules to follow, but they have clearly gotten the message that they need to be extra vigilant," said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. "In the end, it seems you never know how a particular security guard is going to react."

Clarifying the law

Last year, New York City police sought to clarify the rules on photography with a directive to all officers. It said that photography is "rarely unlawful" and that officers have no right to demand to see photos or to delete them. Like Washington, New York is a potential terrorist target but also a major tourist destination, and as a result, the directive said, "practically all such photography will have no connection to terrorism or unlawful conduct."

Police officials say officers who seek to stop photography are driven by safety concerns and the fact that the presence of a camera can spike emotions.

"When people see a camera, they get more into it," said Marcello Muzzatti, president of D.C. Lodge No. 1 of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 11,000 officers in more than 100 D.C. and federal agencies. "Some people will figure, 'I have a right to take pictures,' and we are not arguing with that. An officer also has a right to his or her safety and to control the situation."

The flip side of that coin is that "photography creates a relatively objective record," said Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the ACLU's national office. "The police certainly realize this, which is why they routinely record their interaction with citizens. And there is no reason why people should be deprived of that same tool."

Photographers are challenging unwarranted restrictions by collecting hundreds of photos that prompted police questioning, detention or arrest; the pictures are posted on online photo sharing sites such as Flickr.

Local photographers are also testing trouble spots, especially outside federal buildings, many of which are guarded by the Federal Protective Service, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security that has 1,225 officers and 15,000 contract guards to secure more than 9,000 buildings nationwide.

Erin McCann of the District elicited laughter at a congressional hearing last fall when she described an encounter with an FPS officer at the Transportation Department headquarters in Southeast. The officer told her it was illegal to photograph federal buildings. When McCann asked what law stated that, the officer cited Title 18 of the U.S. Code. Title 18 is the name of the entire body of U.S. criminal law.

Official FPS guidance, issued in 2004, reads: "Please understand there is no prohibition against photographing the DOT or FAA headquarters buildings." The Transportation Department later wrote to McCann, saying that the officer had been wrong. FPS is revising its photography policy, spokesman Michael Keegan said.

Local shutterbugs give higher marks to Metro, saying the transit agency has worked to ensure that its employees know photography is allowed in and around its stations. (The exception is the Pentagon Station, which is Pentagon property.)

"We believe that [the Metro system] is a tourist attraction as much as the Washington Monument," agency spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

Unwelcome civics lessons

Photographers say police need to be told explicitly not to prohibit photography, because officers often don't respond well to impromptu citizen lectures on constitutional law.

In March, two Transportation Security Administration officials didn't take kindly to First Amendment arguments made by Jerome Vorus of Alexandria. The college student was taking photos on a public concourse at Reagan National Airport for his aviation blog when he was stopped and questioned.

Vorus, 19, said TSA workers told him he was not allowed to take pictures of the security checkpoint or TSA personnel. The TSA does not prohibit photographing, videotaping or filming at screening locations, spokeswoman Lauren Gaches said. TSA employees may ask photographers to stop only if they are interfering with the screening process or taking pictures of X-ray monitor screens, which Vorus says he was not doing.

After a lengthy back-and-forth, Vorus snapped photos of two airports authority police officers who had been called in to help. He says one officer tackled him, took his camera and deleted pictures.

"This is assault!" Vorus can be heard shouting on an audio recording he made of the incident. An airports authority investigation was "inconclusive" about whether the officer tackled Vorus or deleted his pictures but concluded the officer did violate unnamed airport policies. Authority spokesman Robert Yingling declined to comment further on the investigation.

This month, Vorus had another run-in, this time with D.C. police, as he photographed a traffic stop that he happened upon in Georgetown. He was questioned, detained and then let go.

Police say they were justified in stopping him because was taking photos of the inside of the squad car. Vorus, who was 20 feet away, says he "wasn't trying to make a point or cause a scene" but was merely asserting his rights.

Second District Cmdr. Matthew Klein said there is no official prohibition against photographing the interior of a squad car. But he said officers acted appropriately because they thought Vorus was escalating the situation.

"They had a situation developing," Klein said. "They had to make a call."

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