You Have The Right To Take Pictures Of Infrastructure—Business And Government Work Together To Deny Basic Freedoms In An Open Society
Houston public radio station KUHF reported recently about people in Houston who take pictures of things such as refineries and bridges here in Houston.
(Above–You have the right to take pictures.)
These persons are often stopped and questioned by police and by private/corporate security officers.
From the KUHF report—
“As part of his work as a community organizer for environmental causes, Juan Parras takes photos of refineries and petrochemical plants near the Houston Ship Channel. Sometimes, he says he’s made to feel like a criminal for doing it. In some cases, they’ve actually wanted to delete the pictures we took,” he says. When that happened, Parras says he just told the officers he didn’t know how to do that…People who photograph or videotape “critical infrastructure”– what the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) calls things like refineries, bridges and airports — might be plotting an attack. Or at least that’s the message the government is publicizing in an effort to encourage all of us to report suspicious people…An anti-terrorism video produced by the City of Houston shows a woman taking notes and photos at a light rail station. When a police officer approaches, she tries to leave. The next shot is of the woman being held in the backseat of a patrol car….In July of 2010, Austin-based photographer Lance Rosenfield was on assignment for ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative reporting project, which was doing stories on accidents and pollution releases from BP’s big refinery complex in Texas City….But after getting shots of a “Welcome to Texas City” sign along a highway that borders the refinery, Rosenfield noticed he was being followed by a private security truck. When he pulled into a gas station, a couple of Texas City police patrol cars pulled in. Rosenfield showed officers the photos on his digital camera. Satisfied he had done nothing wrong, the officers said he could go. But they also insisted on giving the personal information they’d collected from Rosenfield to a security officer from BP who also showed up at the gas station….Under federal regulations, the chemical industry is actually required to promptly report security “incidents” to the National Response Center, providing “as much … information as possible,” including addresses and phone numbers of people apparently like Rosenfield. “
I take many pictures around Houston for my blog and for another project I’m working on. I was once stopped and asked questions by private security officers of a large energy company while I was on City of Houston property. These persons told me that if I did not give my name that they would call the police and the Coast Guard.
I’ll be honest—I gave in and told them my name because I was nervous and I did not want to deal with it all.
But the truth is that you have rights in this society. You have rights even given the collaboration of big companies and government to deny our basic freedom to observe and make note of what is around us in life.
The ACLU has a page of rights that each of us have to take pictures in our supposed land of the free.
Here is some of what the ACLU says on this issue—
When in public spaces where you are lawfully present you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view. That includes pictures of federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police. Such photography is a form of public oversight over the government and is important in a free society.
When you are on private property, the property owner may set rules about the taking of photographs. If you disobey the property owner’s rules, they can order you off their property (and have you arrested for trespassing if you do not comply).
Police officers may not generally confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant.If you are arrested, the contents of your phone may be scrutinized by the police, although their constitutional power to do so remains unsettled. In addition, it is possible that courts may approve the seizure of a camera in some circumstances if police have a reasonable, good-faith belief that it contains evidence of a crime by someone other than the police themselves (it is unsettled whether they still need a warrant to view them).
Police may not delete your photographs or video under any circumstances.
Police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations. Professional officers, however, realize that such operations are subject to public scrutiny, including by citizens photographing them.
Note that the right to photograph does not give you a right to break any other laws. For example, if you are trespassing to take photographs, you may still be charged with trespass.