This Is Important – Photographers Rights from the ACLU

Undoubtedly, any photographer who has done “street photography” has at one point either been hastled by the authorities for taking pictures, or has felt stress from people around them because they were in a spot taking photos. It happens all the time – you’re taking photos of something somewhat controversial, and a misinformed security guard or police officer forces you to stop.

Most recently, this happened to me at the TSA security checkpoint at the LaGuardia Airport. I was going through for a normal security check, and my bag was flagged for further inspection. The TSA agent did the standard procedure of swabbing the outside of my bag, and then putting the swab in a testing machine to test for any traces of explosives. Of course, the machine didn’t find anything suspicious on my bag. The whole procedure was fairly interesting – the way the parts of my bag were swabbed, and the look of the spectrometer they used to test it. Lots of cool blinking lights. So, naturally, as this procedure was going on, I got out my iPhone4 and took a couple of pictures of my bag being swabbed, and then the swab as it was being put in the testing machine. Immediately, one of the TSA guards noticed I was taking photos, and yelled at me to stop, and then told one of her collegues to call the police. Within 3 minutes, I was surrounded by 4 TSA Agents, and another 4 police officers, demanding to know what I was doing taking photos. I told them exactly what I just wrote, that I was simply interested in the procedure, and the kind of machine they were using. They police officers immediately stated that I could be hauled to jail immediately for taking photos of the machine, and demanded that I show them the pictures and delete them. When I protested that taking photos is not illegal, they got very agitated and threatened me again. Since at this point I had been there for about 30 minutes and my flight was boarding, I decided not to push it, and deleted the photos. They let me go, and i got on my flight.

After this incident, I researched the matter a bit more, and learned that it actually is not illegal to take photos at a TSA checkpoint.

Specifically, their site states:

TSA does not prohibit the public, passengers or press from photographing, videotaping or filming at security checkpoints, as long as the screening process is not interfered with or slowed down. We do ask you to not film or take pictures of the monitors. While the TSA does not prohibit photographs at screening locations, local laws, state statutes, or local ordinances might.

So, I think it’s kind of a grey area here on who was right. Their statement notes that they “ask” me not to take pictures of the monitors – however, is the computer readout of their spectrometer considered a monitor? I really only consider the xray machine screens to be monitors, and the small monochrome LCD display on the spectrometer to be a simple readout.

The reason I’m relating this story is because the ACLU recently published an excellent article on the rights a photographer has.

The excellent brief covers:

  • Your rights as a photographer.
  • What to do if you are stopped or detained for taking photographs.
  • Special considerations when videotaping.
  • Photography at the airport.

Read: Know Your Rights: Photographers | American Civil Liberties Union

Of course, there’s always room for interpretation here, and you should always try to respect people when you’re taking photos – but I think this article outlines a few good issues, and also helps drive home why sometimes taking photos can serve as a good public service.