To settle a right-to-photograph lawsuit filed by an aspiring photojournalist and the ACLU, the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department has issued a general order stating that “a bystander has the right under the First Amendment to observe and record [DC police officers] in the public discharge of their duties.”
The order instructs police not to interfere with anyone photographing police activity as long as the photographer is standing in a public setting or private facility where they have the right to be, and as long as they are not interfering with police activity.
The order also reminds police that still and video photography “of places, buildings, structures and events are common and lawful activities.” And it spells out the limited terms and conditions under which police can seize recordings for evidence.
For photographers and civil rights activists fighting what they perceive as a rising tide of police intimidation and interference against photographers nationwide, the order represents progress. It follows closely a blueprint for police policy to protect the rights of photographers that the US Department of Justice issued earlier this year.
The DOJ blueprint was directed at the Baltimore Police Department, which is being sued for unlawfully seizing, searching and deleting the contents of a citizen’s cell phone after he used it to record police officers making an arrest. The Baltimore Police Department subsequently issued an order declaring that citizens had the right to photograph police activity. But the DOJ said the Baltimore order didn’t go far enough to protect photographers’ (and citizens’) rights because it wasn’t specific enough.
The order issued last week by the Washington DC police department follows the DOJ blueprint almost to the letter, spelling out citizens’ constitutional rights, providing explanations and examples of legal activity and limited exceptions.
The lawsuit lodged against DC police was similar to the case in Baltimore. Jerome Vorus, a student and aspiring photojournalist, began photographing a traffic stop in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC in June, 2010. Police officers told him he was not allowed to photograph, and detained him for half an hour. With help from the ACLU, Vorus sued police for violating his rights. Vorus and the ACLU dropped the claim last week after police agreed to issue the order protecting the right of citizens who photograph the police.
The case in Baltimore, meanwhile, is still pending.
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