The Photographer's Right
Your Rights and Remedies When Stopped or Confronted for
by Bert P. Krages II, Attorney at
About this Guide
Confrontations that impair the constitutional right to make images
are becoming more common. To fight the abuse of your right to free
expression, you need to know your rights to take photographs and
the remedies available if your rights are infringed. For a printable
PDF version of the guide, click
The General Rule
The general rule in the United States is that anyone may take photographs
of whatever they want when they are in a public place or places
where they have permission to take photographs. Absent a specific
legal prohibition such as a statute or ordinance, you are
legally entitled to take photographs. Examples of places that are
traditionally considered public are streets, sidewalks, and public
parks. Property owners may legally prohibit photography on their
premises but have no right to prohibit others from photographing
their property from other locations. Whether you need permission
from property owners to take photographs while on their premises
depends on the circumstances. In most places, you may reasonably
assume that taking photographs is allowed and that you do not need
explicit permission. However, this is a judgment call and you should
request permission when the circumstances suggest that the owner
is likely to object. In any case, when a property owner tells you
not to take photographs while on the premises, you are legally obligated
to honor the request.
Some Exceptions to the Rule
There are some exceptions to the general rule. A significant
one is that
commanders of military installations can prohibit photographs of
areas when they deem it necessary to protect national security.
The U.S. Department of Energy can also prohibit photography of designated
nuclear facilities although the publicly visible areas of nuclear
facilities are usually not designated as such. Members of the public
have a very
limited scope of privacy rights when they are in public places.
anyone can be photographed without their consent except when they
have secluded themselves in places where they have a reasonable
expectation of privacy such as dressing rooms, restrooms, medical
facilities, and inside their homes.
Despite misconceptions to the contrary, the following subjects
almost always be photographed lawfully from public places:
- accident and fire scenes
- bridges and other infrastructure
- residential and commercial buildings
- industrial facilities and public utilities
- transportation facilities (e.g., airports)
- Superfund sites
- criminal activities
- law enforcement officers
Who Is Likely to Violate Your Rights
Most confrontations are started by security guards and employees
organizations who fear photography. The most common reason given
security but often such persons have no articulated reason. Security
rarely a legitimate reason for restricting photography. Taking a
photograph is not a terrorist act nor can a business legitimately
assert that taking a photograph of a subject in public view infringes
on its trade secrets. On occasion, law enforcement officers may
object to photography but most understand that people have the right
to take photographs and do not interfere with photographers. They
do have the right to keep you away from areas where you may impede
activities or endanger safety. However, they do not have the legal
to prohibit you from taking photographs from other locations.
They Have Limited Rights to Bother, Question, or Detain
Although anyone has the right to approach a person in a
and ask questions, persistent and unwanted conduct done without
legitimate purpose is a crime in many states if it causes serious
annoyance. You are under no obligation to explain the purpose of
your photography nor do you have to disclose your identity except
in states that require so upon request by a law enforcement officer.
If the conduct goes beyond mere questioning, all states have laws
that make coercion and harassment criminal offenses. The specific
vary among the states but in general it is unlawful for anyone to
instill a fear that they may injure you, damage or take your property,
or falsely accuse you of a crime just because you are taking photographs.
Private parties have very limited rights to detain you against your
and may be subject to criminal and civil charges should they attempt
do so. Although the laws in most states authorize citizen’s
authority is very narrow. In general, citizen’s arrests can
be made only for felonies or crimes committed in the person’s
presence. Failure to abide by these requirements usually means that
the person is liable for a tort such as false imprisonment.
They Have No Right to Confiscate Your Film
Sometimes agents acting for entities such as owners of industrial
and shopping malls may ask you to hand over your film. Absent a
order, private parties have no right to confiscate your film. Taking
your film directly or indirectly by threatening to use force or
call a law enforcement agency can constitute criminal offenses such
as theft and coercion. It can likewise constitute a civil tort such
as conversion. Law enforcement officers may have the authority to
seize film when making
an arrest but otherwise must obtain a court order.
Your Legal Remedies If Harassed
If someone has threatened, intimidated, or detained you because
you were taking photographs, they may be liable for crimes such
as kidnapping, coercion, and theft. In such cases, you should report
them to the police. You may also have civil remedies against such
persons and their employers. The torts for which you may be entitled
to compensation include assault, conversion, false imprisonment,
and violation of your constitutional rights.
Other Remedies If Harassed
If you are disinclined to take legal action, there are still things
you can do that contribute to protecting the right to take photographs.
(1) Call the local newspaper and see if they are interested in running
a story. Many newspapers feel that civil liberties are worthy of
(2) Write to or call the supervisor of the person involved, or the
public relations department of the entity, and complain about the
(3) Make the event publicly known on an Internet
forum that deals with photography or civil rights issues.
How to Handle Confrontations
Most confrontations can be defused by being courteous and respectful.
If the party becomes pushy, combative, or unreasonably hostile,
consider calling the police. Above all, use good judgment and don’t
allow an event to escalate into violence. In the event you are threatened
with detention or asked to surrender your film, asking the following
questions can help ensure that you will have the evidence to enforce
your legal rights:
1. What is the person’s name?
2. Who is their employer?
3. Are you free to leave? If not, how do they intend to stop you
if you decide to leave? What legal basis do they assert for the
4. Likewise, if they demand your film, what legal basis do they
assert for the confiscation?
This is a general education guide about the right to take photographs
and is necessarily limited in scope. For more information about
that affect photography, I refer you to my book, Legal Handbook
Photographers (Amherst Media, 2002).
This guide is not intended to be legal advice nor does it create
an attorney client relationship. Readers should seek the advice
of a competent attorney when they need legal advice regarding a
NewsLab suggests these websites that may be
to "keeping photographers out of trouble and supporting them
when trouble forms."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom
of the Press provides free legal assistance to journalists.
Bert P. Krages II
Attorney at Law
6665 S.W. Hampton Street, Suite 200
Portland, Oregon 97223
© 2003 Bert P. Krages II
Updated July 2004