The Ten Legal Commandments of Photography

  1. Anyone in a public place can take pictures of anything they want. Public places include parks, sidewalks, malls, etc. Malls? Yeah. Even though it's technically private property, being open to the public makes it public space.

  2. If you are on public property, you can take pictures of private property. If a building, for example, is visible from the sidewalk, it's fair game.

  3. If you are on private property and are asked not to take pictures, you are obligated to honor that request. This includes posted signs.

  4. Sensitive government buildings (military bases, nuclear facilities) can prohibit photography if it is deemed a threat to national security.

  5. People can be photographed if they are in public (without their consent) unless they have secluded themselves and can expect a reasonable degree of privacy. Kids swimming in a fountain? Okay. Somebody entering their PIN at the ATM? Not okay.

  6. The following can almost always be photographed from public places, despite popular opinion:

    • accident and fire scenes, criminal activities

    • bridges and other infrastructure, transportation facilities (i.e. airports)

    • industrial facilities, Superfund sites

    • public utilities, residential and commercial buildings

    • children, celebrities, law enforcement officers

    • UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Chuck Norris

  7. Although security is often given as the reason somebody doesn't want you to take photos, it's rarely valid. Taking a photo of a publicly visible subject does not constitute terrorism, nor does it infringe on a company's trade secrets.

  8. If you are challenged, you do not have to explain why you are taking pictures, nor to you have to disclose your identity (except in some cases when questioned by a law enforcement officer.)

  9. Private parties have very limited rights to detain you against your will, and can be subject to legal action if they harass you.

  10. If someone tries to confiscate your camera and/or film, you don't have to give it to them. If they take it by force or threaten you, they can be liable for things like theft and coercion. Even law enforcement officers need a court order.

What To Do If You're Confronted

  • Be respectful and polite. Use good judgement and don't escalate the situation.

  • If the person becomes combative or difficult, think about calling the police.

  • Threats, detention, and taking your camera are all grounds for legal or civil actions on your part. Be sure to get the person's name, employer, and what legal grounds they claim for their actions.

  • If you don't want to involve the authorities, go above the person's head to their supervisor or their company's public relations department.
  • Call your local TV and radio stations and see if they want to do a story about your civil liberties.

  • Put the story on the web yourself if need be.

More Resources

  • We've condensed these facts a great deal. We recommend downloading The Photographer's Right and keeping a couple of copies in your camera bag if you're shooting somewhere you might expect trouble.

  • Andrew Kantor has written a good article and a PDF summary of your rights, including some of the ins-and-outs of publishing your pictures.

  • The Legal Handbook for Photographers is a great resource covering all aspects of photography and the law.

Discretionary charges, such as disorderly conduct, loitering, disturbing the peace and resisting arrest, are all too easily used to curtail expressive conduct or retaliate against individuals for exercising their First Amendment rights. ... Core First Amendment conduct, such as recording a police officer performing duties on a public street, cannot be the sole basis for such charges

Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

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