A Law Favoring Photographers

21 04 2011

I have been following an exciting bill in the Connecticut legislature that for explicitly takes steps to protect photographers rights to make pictures.

In the face of recent efforts by other states to arrest photographers and charge them with violating wiretapping laws Connecticut’s S.B. No. 1206 is refreshing.

Contrary to some reports, the bill does not give photographers the right to take pictures in public- that right already exists. What the bill does is give photographers a right to sue police who interfere with their right to photograph. In many cases, you can only bring a lawsuit if the suit is authorized. A violation of a civil right is generally an appropriate grounds for suit, and in fact many photographers across the country have received settlements from police departments after being arrested unjustly. However, having an explicit cause of action will make it easier for photographers to bring suit.

In my opinion, it is not the possibility of a lawsuit that would make this bill favorable. Sure it is nice to get something for your trouble. But what matters here is the pressure that this would put on police departments to make sure that their officers respect the First Amendment and leave photographers alone.

The bill is short enough that I can post the entire version here:

Any peace officer, as defined in section 53a-3 of the general statutes, who interferes with a person taking a photographic or digital still or video image of such peace officer or another peace officer acting in the performance of such officer’s duties shall be liable to such person in an action at law, suit in equity or other proper proceeding for redress, provided such person, while taking such image, did not obstruct or hinder any peace officer in the performance of such officer’s duties.

According to the Hartford Courant an amendment has been added that exempts officers “if the officer had a reasonable belief it would interfere with an investigation, violate the privacy of a victim or impact the public’s safety.” I’m hoping to get a copy of the amended text- it is not currently posted on the General Assembly website. An amendment like this could take away the teeth of the law or even make things worse if poorly written.


Newark Cameraman assaulted by police is suing.

5 11 2009

In general, I don’t do cartwheels when I hear about lawsuits. But this one makes me happy. A TV photographer in New Jersey has filed a lawsuit against a police officer who arrested him while the photographer was filming a peaceful demonstration. Apparently the only thing violent about this demonstration was the officer’s clash with the photographer.

This video shows the original event. Can you say “settle now.”

Dear Police of America: Stop violating the constitutional rights of journalists. We are journalists and we will get really good evidence.

It’s photo week at the Supreme Court of the United States

7 10 2009

071107-scotus-awc-031Photographers should be paying attention to the Supreme Court this week…

Tasini continued…

Oral arguments were heard today in Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick. This case is connected to our old friend Tasini v. New York Times, which some say started the whole rights grabbing trends of the modern day newspaper contract. While this case won’t really have as much of an impact on photographers, it is interesting because of the connection. It involves the authority of the court over copyright cases and settlements when the rights holders haven’t registered their copyright. It also involves an enormous class of journalists. Here is a summary of the oral arguments (note to self: research why people keep hyphenating “freelancer”) and here is a transcript of the oral arguments.

If the court rules that a federal court cannot approve a settlement involving rights-holders who have not registered, it seems inevitable that this will affect the Google Books settlement.

The Dog-fight Video Case

In another case that is important to photographers, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday about whether or not a law that bans visual depictions of cruelty to animals is a violation of the First Amendment.

U.S. v. Stevens is the first case ever to be prosecuted under a federal law that bans any “depiction of animal cruelty” if such cruelty is illegal in the place where the depiction is created, sold or possessed.

It has been many years since the Court found that the government interest in preventing child pornography was so great that it overrode any First Amendment rights of the child pornographer, a rather appropriate finding. By making the expressive act illegal, the motive for the abuse is diminished. Child pornography involves abuse of a child and the photography itself is abusive. The law is clearly narrowly tailored and serves a compelling government interest.

This law is not so well orchestrated. For example, the defedant, Stevens, was not involved in any animal abuse, he merely edited together footage that he obtained from others.

While well intentioned (many attacks on the First Amendment are), I think this law is certain to be struck down. First of all, I don’t believe that our government truly has a compelling interest in preventing cruelty to animals. If it did, much of the way our nation produces meat would be illegal (yes, I am a vegetarian). Second, the law is in no way narrowly tailored. There are many possibilities of perfectly legal activity that could get a person caught up in this law. And there are loopholes that would make illegal a video or photograph of something that was legal where it occurred (say bullfighting in Spain). I once photographed a ritual sacrifice of a sea turtle in a Fijian village. It was gross. It was brutal and cruel. But it was important to document. Those pictures could get me in trouble with the feds under this law.

If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the list of hypotheticals the justices posed to the attorneys in this case. The article in the New York Times says it all.

The transcript, full of hypotheticals, is here.

An article about the NPPA signing an amicus brief urging the court to hold the law unconstitutional is here.

One of my favorite things to listen to is a Nina Totenberg report on Supreme Court arguments. Her review of this weeks oral arguments is available here.

“Don’t shoot me! (while I’m in handcuffs)”

8 06 2009

A couple of weeks ago, a defendent in Long Island, NY, actually had the nerve to ask a federal judge to bar the media from publishing photographs of him in handcuffs. The defendant, former legislatorRoger Corbin, was arrested on federal charges of tax evasion.

Among the things that Corbin asked for was an end to the “perp walk,” specifically:

(A) permanently enjoining, restraining, and stopping Newsday, News 12 and the United States Government from issuing press releases, mug shots or “perp walk” photos, videos or images of the defendant in handcuffs; and

(B) permanently enjoining the United States Government from conducting “perp walks” or issuing other information of the defendant aside from pedigree information and except as directed by the Court;

Needless to say, the motion to prevent perp walks, for either Corbin, or other defendants, was denied, as was the motion to stop publication of the images of Corbin in handcuffs. But as is the case with most rulings, the judge cannot just say “no.” He has to explain it.  The case goes through all of the motions of why, and for that reason it is interesting reading to anyone who wants to know the law behind perp walks or behind judicial restraint and the push-pull of fair trial vs. free press.

I thought it was interesting that the judge found the perp walk issue moot because it had already happened. Federal courts can only rule on “cases in controversy,” in other words, if there was about to be a perp walk, there would be a controversy, but since the time had passed, there was no “justiciable” issue. I was surprised by this ruling, even though the judge had good precedent. There are exceptions to this rule when the issue is something that will be repeated, and it ordinarily begins and ends before a case can reasonably be brought. This was the reasoning behind some desegregation cases, when the child had already graduated.

Also interesting to me, was that in Corbin’s efforts to stop the police from releasing information and photos to the media, the judge ruled that the media had rights because as the recipients to the information, their First Amendment rights were invoked. In other words, when it comes to restricting information, both the person communicating the information AND the recipient have first amendment rights. To quote a Supreme Court case, “W]here  [*29] a willing speaker exists, … the protection afforded is to the communication, to its source and its recipients both.” (case can be found at 425 U.S. 748). The fact that the recipient has as much right to recieve the communication as the speaker has to give it is not something that I was aware of. It is definitely useful.

The judge’s ruling on the motions can be found at United States v. Corbin, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46241 (E.D.N.Y. June 1, 2009).

Videographer Detained by Police

9 11 2008

I thought this was worth watching. It is a terrible example of the abuse the media often faces simply while doing their jobs. In this instance, it was a school district chief. Thank goodness no charges were filed, but that doesn’t change the fact that another photographer has been hassled for doing something expressly protected by the Constitution.

(caution: expletives)

Charges dropped against photographer

20 06 2008

In another “bully the photographer” case…

A good friend of mine, Tony Overman (a respected and experienced journalists who has testified before Congress on behalf of the profession), was arrested while covering a fire scene recently. Basically, he got into a verbal argument with a police officer. The officer got in his face, their noses touched. The officer accused Tony of assaulting him, pushed him to the ground, arrested him, and twisted his arm. Tony’s wrist was sprained. He was charged with assaulting a police officer- basically for talking back.

Fortunately, Tony knew exactly how to handle this, from years of advocating for other photographers. He has a media lawyer on his speed dial.

The evidence in this case spoke for itself. None of the other police officers or firefighters on the scene saw the alleged assault. The officer also had no reported injuries, despite his claim that Tony hit him in the nose with his forehead.

The charges were dropped yesterday.

I have been thinking about something lately. I have been wondering if there is any other profession where the professionals risk arrest for doing their job every day. I can’t think of one, other than journalist (and maybe drug dealer)

I am relieved that the charges against Tony were dropped, but in general, I am so sad about this reality…

• Story in The Olympian •• NPPA Story •