Sunday, April 05, 2009

Photographer NOT Terrorist

Bostonist loves our Flickr photographers and we love freedom of speech. That's why we're always appalled when police hassle law abiding photographers while they exercise their First Amendment right to take photographs in public. That's what apparently happened last week.

Last Thursday morning, Joe, a local photographer, stopped at Mary O’Malley park in Chelsea for a few pictures of the Tobin Bridge and the surrounding area (boats, docks, etc). After about 10 minutes he decided to get back on the road, but two patrol cars arrived and blocked him in. Joe says that the two officers got out of their patrol cars and began questioning him aggressively about what he was doing. Joe explained the situation to the officers. The officer explained to him that he was being stopped for taking photos and that the area is “under heavy surveillance” and that “photographing was not allowed” since it is a “protected area.”

There are no laws, including the Patriot Act, that forbid photography in public parks. Public parks are by their very nature, public and therefore are not a “protected area.” Joe explained that he was a photographer and that he took pictures around Chelsea all the time without incident. The officers asked for his ID, and some credentials to prove he was a photographer. Photography is a constitutionally protected form of free speech in the US, as the US Supreme Court has ruled many times over.

The police officers ran their standard license and vehicle registration checks and then told Joe that he could not photograph in the area, take pictures of the bridge, or the LNG (liquefied natural gas) area. Joe again explained that he wasn’t doing anything wrong and was just putting together images for a stock photography site. One officer asked to see the pictures, and then told Joe he had to delete them, and then show him the review to confirm deletion. They also questioned him about other photos on his camera from a previous night.

Although Joe agrees that the police officer did ask, and not demand, he let them see his photos, he didn’t feel that he could refuse. Joe was under no obligation to let the officer see the pictures without a court order. An officer cannot force you to delete photos on a digital camera or ruin a roll of film in a film camera without a court order.

Joe was obviously upset by what he considered to be unfair treatment by the Chelsea Police Department. He contacted the department and was referred to Internal Affairs and was told that they have to investigate if someone reports a situation. No problem there, we expect our police departments to do just that. He was also told that next time he wants to photograph there he is to call and let the office in charge know that he has been OK’d for photography.

But that's absurd. Joe has absolutely no obligation to call the police for permission to photograph. He has a first amendment right to take photographs. When Joe made the point about being asked to delete the photos, the officer from Internal Affairs said they should have said something to the effect of “Would you delete the images to clear up any suspicion.” The officer reportedly added that when it comes to the LNG, the State Police might make the same inferences. Apparently, hassling law abiding citizens is common there. Chelsea police had not returned a request for comment by the time this post was published.

It's an example of how our basic Constitutional rights are slipping away. Either by giving them away (phoning the police before taking pictures) or by having them taken from us (being intimidated by officers on threat of arrest). Although this particular story relates to photographers the fact is that this could have been anyone in the area that day or any other day. This Bostonist certainly isn’t anti-police, in fact as a former EMT/Firefighter I think most of our police officers do a fantastic job under very stressful conditions. But we also need our police to understand that not everyone is a terrorist, and threatening innocent people with arrest is not the answer.

Photographers, arm yourselves with information. Always carry The Photographers' Bill of Rights in your camera bag to show police who try to keep you from exercising them.

Photographers' Bill of Rights


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