Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Federal Protective Service Concedes: It's a Free Country

Feel free to snap away at buildings like the Daniel Moynihan U.S. Federal Courthouse in New York City (left)

The New York Times is reporting on a welcome development: You Can Photograph That Federal Building:

The right of photographers to stand in a public place and take pictures of federal buildings has been upheld by a legal settlement reached in New York.

In the ever-escalating skirmishes between photographers and security agencies, the most significant battlefield is probably the public way — streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas — which has customarily been regarded as a vantage from which photography cannot and should not be barred.

Under the settlement, announced Monday by the New York Civil Liberties Union [read it here], the Federal Protective Service said that it would inform its officers and employees in writing of the “public’s general right to photograph the exterior of federal courthouses from publicly accessible spaces” and remind them that “there are currently no general security regulations prohibiting exterior photography by individuals from publicly accessible spaces, absent a written local rule, regulation or order.”

-- snip --

“This settlement secures the public’s First Amendment right to use cameras in public spaces without being harassed,” said a statement issued by Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. Musumeci in Federal District Court.

On behalf of the Federal Protective Service, Michael Keegan, the chief of public and legislative affairs, said in a statement that the “settlement of Mr. Musumeci’s lawsuit 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.”

-- snip --

As part of the settlement, the Federal Protective Service said it construed the [U.S. Code] regulation “not to prohibit individuals from photographing (including motion photography) the exterior of federal courthouses from publicly accessible spaces.”

Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal director of the civil liberties union and lead counsel in the case, said in a telephone interview that the settlement could be interpreted to apply to any federal building anywhere in the country under the aegis of the protective service. Because the regulation speaks broadly of federal property — not only courthouses — Mr. Dunn said the settlement was “tantamount to a recognition that there is no restriction on the photography of federal buildings from public places.”

This affirmation of common sense applies to U.S. federal buildings domestically, but not overseas. Your Mileage May Vary if you photograph U.S. embassy facilities, as this guy found out, since foreign police tend to be terribly retrograde in these matters.

And, it might be a while before TSA gets the memo, judging by this, but I expect it will eventually.

I'm really glad to see this development. The practice of trying to prohibit photography of public buildings from public spaces is intensely irrational, and just the kind of mindlessness that causes people to question the legitimacy of security measures in general. Not to mention that it's impossible, what with Google Street View and such. And, of course, you can take your own photos all day long without being molested so long as you're discrete about it; I've done it all over the world without a problem.

Some terrorist groups have indeed conducted formal surveillance of targets, to include photography, but the idea of the camera-snapping terrorist is really more of a movie plot device than an actual threat.

My job for around 25 years now has involved studying buildings to assess their vulnerability to terrorism, in order to then adjust the Feng Shui of their security countermeasures. That's the flip side of terrorist surveillance - working the defense rather than the offense. Anyone who does that work could tell the FPS that there is no way to hide observable vulnerabilities from the public view, or to remove them from the public record. Trying to prohibit photographing, or sketching, or prolonged looking at public buildings is as pointless as it is futile.

To all the guards out there: the next time you see a camera, the best thing you can do is to smile and wave.

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