Right to photograph federal buildings upheld

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 6:11 PM

The federal agency responsible for protecting more than 9,000 federal facilities is reminding its security guards that the general public has the right to take photographs and shoot video outside the courthouses, office buildings and campuses they protect.

The reminder is part of a federal court settlement between the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Protective Service and the New York Civil Liberties Union. The group represented Antonio Musumeci, 29, of Edgewater, N.J., who sued after being arrested last November for videotaping a demonstrator outside a federal courthouse in Manhattan. One of Musumeci's cameras was confiscated during the arrest, but he managed to document the incident with another camera.

A settlement reached Friday required FPS to issue the reminder to its full-time inspector staff. But FPS guards may still approach and observe people photographing or filming the exterior of federal buildings to request identification and ask why they're taking photos or video.

The settlement "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," FPS spokesman Michael Keegan said in an e-mail.

"There has been, for a number of years, what appears to be an exemption of federal buildings from the First Amendment right to take pictures," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. "This is a victory for freedom of expression and it means that photographers, including tourists, who are trying to take pictures outside federal buildings ought to be able to do so without interference."

Lieberman said she plans to remind other affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union and other First Amendment groups of the court settlement to ensure blanket enforcement nationwide.

"Even with straightforward First Amendment victories like this, often they're in the abstract, unless we take steps to let people know about them," she said.

Friday's settlement comes as the National Park Service is also making it easier for small groups to gather at national parks. The change in policy follows a Justice Department decision not to appeal a federal judge's ruling that forcing individuals or small groups to obtain a permit for First Amendment activities at the parks was unconstitutional.

FPS protects about 1.5 million federal workers at 9,000 federal installations nationwide. Lawmakers have proposed legislation to bolster the agency's manpower and budget after a 2009 audit revealed serious gaps in its ability to protect major federal buildings.

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