“No post-9/11 laws specifically prohibit the right to take pictures in public.”

– Morgan Leigh Manning – Less Than Picture Perfect: The Legal Relationship Between Photographers’ Rights And Law Enforcement

Although this over simplifies a very complex legal system, it is the basis of a battle that has brewed for 10 years between photographers and law enforcement (both public and private).  The tragedies of ten years ago in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania have been used as an excuse to curb the rights of both professional and amateur photographers in America (and the UK, although I am only focusing on the US here) to photograph.  A recent analysis of the photographers’ right situation in America by Morgan Leigh Manning of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is titled Less Than Picture Perfect: The Legal Relationship Between Photographers’ Rights And Law Enforcement and it reviews this “battle” and what the laws of the  US really say about photography and maybe more importantly, what they do not say.

Manning presents numerous cases where the rights of a photographer have been violated since 9/11 in the us; reviews what US law actually says in relation to photography, no it is not a free for all with everything allowed, but the limitations are very narrow and specific; and discusses options for recourse after an encounter with law enforcement and why they may or may not work.  The paper also addresses the implications of the erosion of photography rights and what those rights have meant to the history of the US.  Finally Manning offers some solutions for photographers and the legal community on how to combat and address this problem that persists in spite of no legal ground to stand on.

There is a fair amount of legalese in this paper, as it is a scholastic legal writing, but it is not so much that the average photographer will not understand it.  I think it is well worth the read.  As photographers we all need to know, understand and protect our rights.  You can download Less Than Picture Perfect: The Legal Relationship Between Photographers’ Rights And Law Enforcement here.

For at least two reasons, the argument that the heightened regulation of
the right to take pictures in public places enhances national security or
public safety is deeply flawed. First, the prevailing evidence indicates that
the perpetrators of past terrorist attacks never photographed their targets.
Why would they need to, after all? The Internet and modern technology
have made it possible to obtain pictures of most structures, especially ones
located in urban areas, with the click of a mouse. For example, Google
Earth provides images of almost any address in the country from a variety
of distances and angles.

Second, even if terrorists did photograph their targets, it would be
totally impractical to try to stop them. Bruce Schneier, an internationally
known security technologist and author, notes:

Billions of photographs are taken by honest people every year, 50 billion
by amateurs alone in the US. And the national monuments you imagine
terrorists taking photographs of are the same ones tourists like to take
pictures of. If you see someone taking one of those photographs, the odds
are infinitesimal that he’s a terrorist.

Questioning for the purpose of identifying potential terrorists persons
taking pictures of the Empire State Building in New York City or the White
House in Washington, D.C., makes less sense than trying to find a needle in
a haystack, because, chances are, the needle does not exist.

Manning, Morgan Leigh, Less than Picture Perfect: The Legal Relationship between Photographers’ Rights and Law Enforcement (June, 03 2011). Tennessee Law Review, Vol. 78, p. 105, 2010. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1857623


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