Legal Rights of Photographers

Even before 9/11, photography had been under siege. Anyone with a camera larger than a cell phone was considered some sort of threat, and since 9/11 it’s only gotten worse.

There’s an incredible amount of misinformation about what rights photographers in the United States have. People have written to me about how they were told, “You can’t take pictures of police,” and “You can’t shoot children without their parents’ permission” and “You can’t take pictures on private property without permission.”

None of these are true.

Photographers have been harassed, threatened, and killed — all for capturing a moment on a memory card or on film. Images have been deleted or confiscated, police have been called, and innocent people have had to deal with know-nothing guards, cops, and ordinary folks.

In 2005, I was a newspaper reporter. Many of us carried point-and-shoot cameras, but our photo department couldn’t give us definitive guidelines of what we could and couldn’t legally shoot. So I set out to learn. I read, sent e-mail, and made phone calls until I was satisfied. (My list of sources is at the end.)

It didn’t take long for a clear consensus to emerge, from people who know these things, about what’s legal and what’s not. So I wrote it all out in a document called “Legal Rights of Photographers.”

I wrote it to satisfy newspaper editors who wanted, not surprisingly, a detailed list of sources and a legal argument. The end result was a bit clunkier than I would like. And since its publication I’ve had a lot — a lot — of questions sent to me, which demonstrated what I left out of that first document.

So here it is again, easier to read with a bit broader coverage to address the questions I got. I hope you find it useful.



View/download v. 2 of Legal Rights of Photographers (500 KB PDF).