War on Photography

A few years ago, I spent the morning on the campus of UT Southwestern Medical School here in Dallas, photographing snowy egrets in the rookery there. I drove into a public parking garage (well, it is “public” in the sense that you don’t have to pay to drive in and no one challenges you when you do), and went up to the top floor, which overlooks the rookery. Within minutes, a campus police car rolled on to the top floor, the officer got out and challenged me. I had business cards with me, which seemed to mollify him, and he was actually fairly pleasant about it. My having a big camera with a big lens was proof enough that I’m photographer, but that wasn’t the issue: I think the business card somehow proved that I’m not a terrorist. Anyway, he explained that the campus is very concerned about security and he advised me not to turn ninety degrees to my left and take photos of the hospital, implying that if I did, he’d be back and perhaps not in such a good mood. I stuck to photographing the birds.

Since then, I’ve read more and more about photographers being challenged while photographing in public places. I find these reports depressing. I’m actually a solid law-and-order guy and I certainly favor doing things that actually work to thwart terrorism. I don’t think my right to (say) take photos of a nuclear power plant overrides the government’s responsibility to protect the plant and local citizens. And my default position is always to support the police. But it’s also clear to me that the police are not well informed on this subject. They are, after all, not generally constitutional scholars and seem to be pretty busy with other matters. And since everybody remains a bit touchy about the possibility of another 9/11 attack, well, the police are over-zealous.

Anyway, here’s an excellent legal article by Morgan Lee Manning discussing these matters very thoroughly: “Less than Picture Perfect: The Legal Relationship between Photographers’ Rights and Law Enforcement.” I recommend it to photographers and lawyers—and especially to policemen. It’s a pretty typical law review article, long and pretty dry in parts. But law reviews are built like sandwiches, except that the meat is on the outside. You can read the first five pages and the last five pages or so and pick up the gist pretty clearly. If you have the time and inclination to dig into the middle of the article, there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, too.

We’re hoping to make a trip to Washington DC in the next year or two. I really really don’t want to get blown up by terrorists. But I would also like the police to feel confident that I, as a photographer, don’t pose a threat to national security when I point my 200mm lens towards the Capitol Building. Could be that I’m just a guy with a camera who loves his country.

Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds.


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