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You Have Every Right to Snap That Picture

Michael Cummings,
New York Civil Liberties Union
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January 27, 2011

Snapping a picture of a federal building from public property is every photographer’s right. Unfortunately, in recent years, pointing a camera at federal building seems to magnetically attract suspicion from federal security officers.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has encountered several cases of people who were unjustly harassed, detained and arrested by federal agents while photographing or videotaping federal buildings from public plazas and sidewalks.

Last year, we sued the U.S Department of Homeland Security in federal court to end this practice. In October, a judge signed a settlement in which the government agreed that no federal statutes or regulations bar people from photographing the exterior of federal buildings. It also agreed to issue a directive to members of the Federal Protective Service (the agency responsible for all government buildings) on photographers’ rights.

The settlement did not require the feds to disclose the directive, but at our request they recently provided us with a copy of it.

The three-page document plainly states that “absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause” security personnel must allow individuals to “photograph the exterior of federally owned or leased facilities from publicly accessible spaces.”

While we’re pleased that the federal government circulated the memo, there is no guarantee that all federal security personnel have memorized it.

Therefore, we encourage anyone who is planning to photograph or film outside a federal building to carry a copy of the memo as a precaution. If approached by security, you can calmly educate them about your rights. Then take as many pictures as you like.

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