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  1. Question Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Wondering if anyone here can point to any actual foundation in law that gives police, federal agents or security on federal property the right to arrest an individual for photographing a federal building?

    I've read about numerous instances of citizens being harassed for taking pictures of federal buildings - both while on federal property and while on a public sidewalk or street - but only recently heard of such harassment here in OKC.

    A journalism professor/friend of mine was telling me that several journalism/photography students have been threatened with arrest and/or the seizure of their camera if they did not immediately stop taking pictures of federal property. Specifically, some sort of sculpture on the West exterior wall of the federal court house.

    I've been doing some Googling and while this topic appears all over the Internet, I cannot find anything but anecdotal evidence both for and against this supposed federal law.

    A blogger I know, Carlos Miller, over at Photography is not a crime has written several articles regarding people being threatened and or arrested. However, I haven't yet found a verifiable article about anyone actually being convicted or even prosecuted for any crime related to photographing a federal building.

    The lack of any specific quoted law in any article makes me suspicious these tales are just another example of the '20 pound badge' we learned about when I took my criminal justice classes in college. Also, I would assume if this was truly a law then Google maps satellite views and street views of federal building would not be legal.

    Anyone have anything concrete to offer.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Quote Originally Posted by BBatesokc View Post
    Wondering if anyone here can point to any actual foundation in law that gives police, federal agents or security on federal property the right to arrest an individual for photographing a federal building?

    I've read about numerous instances of citizens being harassed for taking pictures of federal buildings - both while on federal property and while on a public sidewalk or street - but only recently heard of such harassment here in OKC.

    A journalism professor/friend of mine was telling me that several journalism/photography students have been threatened with arrest and/or the seizure of their camera if they did not immediately stop taking pictures of federal property. Specifically, some sort of sculpture on the West exterior wall of the federal court house.

    I've been doing some Googling and while this topic appears all over the Internet, I cannot find anything but anecdotal evidence both for and against this supposed federal law.

    A blogger I know, Carlos Miller, over at Photography is not a crime has written several articles regarding people being threatened and or arrested. However, I haven't yet found a verifiable article about anyone actually being convicted or even prosecuted for any crime related to photographing a federal building.

    The lack of any specific quoted law in any article makes me suspicious these tales are just another example of the '20 pound badge' we learned about when I took my criminal justice classes in college. Also, I would assume if this was truly a law then Google maps satellite views and street views of federal building would not be legal.

    Anyone have anything concrete to offer.
    I can't site any specific laws but there are many similar type of restrictions. Did you know than when going through immigration and customs areas at airports you are prohibited from using cameras or cell phones? Granted that's not a public sidewalk but the idea is the same. Right or wrong, security issues often override individual rights. Try getting close to President Obama when he's on a public sidewalk and see what happens.

  3. Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Photographing security procedures at and within the airport and immigration is completely different than taking photos of the exterior of a federal building from a public place. I do however think many of the security people reflect that mentality when telling people its illegal. I've searched for some time and found 23 instances where people were detained, ticketed and/or arrested and so far all the ones I can track it never went any further than an inflated ego security person. The cases and or tickets were all dropped when it actually got to someone who knew the law (prosecutors).

    I'm going to keep looking, but my hunch is there is no specific law prohibiting it - I do think though someone could take an existing vague law out of context and try to apply it. Sort of like local laws regarding disorderly conduct, refusing to obey a lawful order, etc. If a cop wants to they can arrest you under those extremely vague statutes.

  4. #4

    Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Quote Originally Posted by BBatesokc View Post
    Photographing security procedures at and within the airport and immigration is completely different than taking photos of the exterior of a federal building from a public place. I do however think many of the security people reflect that mentality when telling people its illegal. I've searched for some time and found 23 instances where people were detained, ticketed and/or arrested and so far all the ones I can track it never went any further than an inflated ego security person. The cases and or tickets were all dropped when it actually got to someone who knew the law (prosecutors).

    I'm going to keep looking, but my hunch is there is no specific law prohibiting it - I do think though someone could take an existing vague law out of context and try to apply it. Sort of like local laws regarding disorderly conduct, refusing to obey a lawful order, etc. If a cop wants to they can arrest you under those extremely vague statutes.
    Photographing the exterior of a federal building could easily be construed as compromising security issues in the context of today's realities. I don't see that it's that much different. You would think that in Oklahoma City, of all places, that would be obvious. I agree that it needs some common sense used. In Washington, federal buildings are photographed continuously every day by tourists without problems.

  5. Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Again, what I'm trying to find is facts. If your analogy was correct then why is Google allowed to provide anyone anywhere on the planet with an up close and personal view of federal buildings - even places like the federal reserve - from the top and all sides.

  6. #6

    Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    It's hard to prove a negative. I don't think you will find a law that says you can't photograph federal buildings from outside the federal building. What you find is misapplication of law. It's legal for facility managers to control photography within facilities they manage. It's not legal IMO to attempt to control photography from areas outside their facility. But it is legal for a law enforcement officer to hold you for questioning in connection with a crime or with probable cause you may be involved in committing a crime.

    So the (mis)application that has not been sufficiently challenged in court yet, happens when an officer of the law claims you photographing a federal building or some other facility is probable cause for detaining you and investigating your activity. That's compounded by security who think they have the right to tell you to stop.

    So they tell you to stop. You do it anyway. They detain you and investigate what you are doing based on the probable cause that photography might be used by a terrorist and we all know the level of the terrorist threat in this country. If you aren't careful you will get charged with resisting or failure to comply with a police investigation and then you get to fight that and attempt to prove the officer did not have probable cause in the first place.

    That's my assessment and I could be completely wrong, there may in fact be a law or worse yet a Homeland Security administrative decision on the matter.

  7. #7

    Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    To follow up on that, Janet Napolitano is supposed to have said that photography is a suspicious activity. I've not looked that up myself but it certainly could provide justification in their minds for actions by security and law enforcement, even though I believe it is completely off base.

  8. Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Quote Originally Posted by Double Edge View Post
    It's hard to prove a negative. I don't think you will find a law that says you can't photograph federal buildings from outside the federal building. What you find is misapplication of law. It's legal for facility managers to control photography within facilities they manage. It's not legal IMO to attempt to control photography from areas outside their facility. But it is legal for a law enforcement officer to hold you for questioning in connection with a crime or with probable cause you may be involved in committing a crime.

    So the (mis)application that has not been sufficiently challenged in court yet, happens when an officer of the law claims you photographing a federal building or some other facility is probable cause for detaining you and investigating your activity. That's compounded by security who think they have the right to tell you to stop.

    So they tell you to stop. You do it anyway. They detain you and investigate what you are doing based on the probable cause that photography might be used by a terrorist and we all know the level of the terrorist threat in this country. If you aren't careful you will get charged with resisting or failure to comply with a police investigation and then you get to fight that and attempt to prove the officer did not have probable cause in the first place.

    That's my assessment and I could be completely wrong, there may in fact be a law or worse yet a Homeland Security administrative decision on the matter.
    That's been my opinion all along. Goes along with the '20 pound badge' reality that often exists in law enforcements mind.

    I can't count the number of times police officers have threatened to arrest me for trespassing because of their interpretation of the fairly new law in Oklahoma County that lets an officer arrest a person for trespass without property owner initiation. However, in every single case when a supervisor was called they said the officer was misinterpreting the spirit of the law. i think the same is often happening with federal buildings, I'm was just hoping to point to a law of at least some examples of its successful application.

  9. #9

    Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    I was threatened with arrest several years ago while trying to photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Apparently you have to get a permit through GSO (or whatever it's called). I have also been chased away from Leadership Square...it is NOT public property. The rebel in me stood in the street taking pictures of the building with a security guard glaring at me, but at least I was on public property. Ridiculous!

  10. Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Our Federal Protective Services-contract guards will only stop photography inside our building - never seen them stop outside.
    On the other hand - as a federal employee, if I see anyone acting suspiciously around our building, I'm going to get a guard to check it out.

    Ever heard of 9/11? Timothy McVeigh? Austin Echelon Building? Sorry if I'm being paranoid, but I lost friends, acquaitances and/or co-workers in each of those incidents. I think the FPS guards at the new Federal Building tend to be a bit jack-booted; however, I'd rather have too much than not enough security.
    Unions - the folks who brought you weekends!
    Proud Army Veteran's Mom

  11. #11

    Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Quote Originally Posted by JLCinOKC View Post
    I was threatened with arrest several years ago while trying to photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Apparently you have to get a permit through GSO (or whatever it's called). I have also been chased away from Leadership Square...it is NOT public property. The rebel in me stood in the street taking pictures of the building with a security guard glaring at me, but at least I was on public property. Ridiculous!
    I've seen Leadership Square harassing photographers. Next time, stand on a public sidewalk and dare him to touch you. You'll have a nice little lawsuit.

  12. #12

    Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    I actually got some decent pictures from that excursion... even with having to stand in the street! I showed his little red wagon! ;-) I can understand the issue with the Federal Building and I may have gotten a little mouthy with the security guard about being paid for by taxpayer money, etc. After the word "arrest" presented itself, I quickly changed my tune, said "yes sir" and put my camera away! I would really like to get some photos of the building. The courtyard has a really interesting water feature in there that I would love to get my lens on...just never have had the patience to get the permit. Anyone know how difficult it would be? And is it the GSO or GSA?

  13. Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Quote Originally Posted by JLCinOKC View Post
    I actually got some decent pictures from that excursion... even with having to stand in the street! I showed his little red wagon! ;-) I can understand the issue with the Federal Building and I may have gotten a little mouthy with the security guard about being paid for by taxpayer money, etc. After the word "arrest" presented itself, I quickly changed my tune, said "yes sir" and put my camera away! I would really like to get some photos of the building. The courtyard has a really interesting water feature in there that I would love to get my lens on...just never have had the patience to get the permit. Anyone know how difficult it would be? And is it the GSO or GSA?
    GSA - General Services Administration
    http://www.gsa.gov

    OKC is in Region 7, Greater Southwest Region. I looked on the website and could find nothing about permits for photography, so I'm guessing you'll have to call them at (817) 978-2321
    (not toll free - Fort Worth Office)
    Unions - the folks who brought you weekends!
    Proud Army Veteran's Mom

  14. #14
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    Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Quote Originally Posted by JLCinOKC View Post
    I was threatened with arrest several years ago while trying to photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Apparently you have to get a permit through GSO (or whatever it's called). I have also been chased away from Leadership Square...it is NOT public property. The rebel in me stood in the street taking pictures of the building with a security guard glaring at me, but at least I was on public property. Ridiculous!
    Then take pictures on a Sunday or on a federal holiday. Or will someone still be around to bug photographers?

  15. #15

    Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bunty View Post
    Then take pictures on a Sunday or on a federal holiday. Or will someone still be around to bug photographers?
    I suppose I could be mistaken, but if I were to bet, I'd lay my money on security always being on duty at federal bldgs., and many, though not all, state facilities as well.

  16. Default Re: Legal Question; Right to photograph federal buildings?

    Quote Originally Posted by kevinpate View Post
    I suppose I could be mistaken, but if I were to bet, I'd lay my money on security always being on duty at federal bldgs., and many, though not all, state facilities as well.
    Don't lay too much money on it - budget cuts are rampant. Just sayin'
    Unions - the folks who brought you weekends!
    Proud Army Veteran's Mom

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