Know Your Rights: Photography in Public
The ubiquity of camera phones has turned every layperson into a semi-professional photographer, and social media makes it even easier to spread photographs and video over the internet like wildfire. Sometimes, those photos and videos even end up changing the course of history, or igniting a movement. Still, the rules of photography in public spaces apply whether you’re wielding a $5,000 Leica or an iPhone.
For the most part, your right to take photographs and video in public places in the United States is protected under the First Amendment under free speech. This includes snapping pictures of your favorite monument when you’re on vacation or taking part in a little citizen journalism. It’s not as cut and dried as you may think and it’s good to know your rights and the caveats that come with them.
The general rule: If you can see it, you can shoot it
Your basic right is actually pretty simple: if you’re in a public place and you can see it, you can shoot it. This means as long as you’re in a public location you can legally take almost any picture. However, if you’re using a telephoto lens, parabolic microphone, or hidden camera to get a shot of a private property when you’re standing on public property you might have an issue if someone on that property has an expectation of privacy. So, what constitutes a public place? Most places are obvious, a park, a street, a soccer field—these are unquestionably legal places to take pictures of anything happening. But what about all those Instagram photos of food you’ve taken inside a business? That’s a little different.
Generally if a private property is open to the public (like a restaurant, retail store, tourist areas, etc) you are allowed to take photographs and video unless it is expressly posted somewhere on the premise that you can’t. In most cases it’s okay to assume you’re allowed to take pictures and video in a shop that doesn’t expressly forbid it. However, if a property owner (or store employee) tells you to stop, you have to stop. More importantly, use good judgement and assess the situation and environment before snapping pictures.
This also goes for citizen journalism. If you see an accident you want to record, public servant misconduct, or even TSA checkpoints, you can do so as long as you’re not interfering with police or medical operations. As far as the Department of Justice is concerned you’re also allowed to shoot video or still shots of police officers provided they’re on public land. Videotaping police officers is still a tricky situation without a concrete ruling, but the courts have leaned toward protecting your right to film officers.
Where and when you get into trouble
As with most laws you’ll find some exceptions to the rules. Photographing on any clearly marked private property is considered trespassing. As for public government property you’re mostly okay, however you cannot take photos of most military bases or inside most courthouses. A few other big caveats exist as well.
Just because some places are public doesn’t make them legal for photography. For instance, a bathroom is a public place, but people have an expectation of privacy in the bathroom, so photos are typically not a good idea. This is also the case with anywhere else people might expect privacy, including inside places like AA meetings or doctor’s offices.
The same goes for photos of people in a private space where they have an expectation of privacy, even if you’re on public property. So, if you can see in your neighbor’s window from the sidewalk while they’re showering, you can’t take that picture, even though you’re on public property (and you might want to tell your neighbor to close their curtains). The general rule is basically if you didn’t want someone covertly taking a picture of you in a sem