Photography & The Law: Some Conventional Wisdom @ the DNC

Posted by Mickey H. Osterreicher — 3 Sep 2012

*** 9/3/12 UPDATE *** Just before the start of the 2012 Republican Convention, which was held in Tampa, FL last week, I wrote the following blog. This is an UPDATE as the press, protestors and police prepare for the Democratic National Convention. I hope the DNC goes as well as the Republic National Convention.

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor speaks to media prior to a protest march at the Republican National Convention by Mickey Osterreicher


Mickey on assignment 1971 by Mickey Osterreicher

When I was 19, I covered my first political convention. In 1972 the democrats were meeting in Miami Beach where they nominated George McGovern to run against Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War was coming to an end and I was the photo editor of my college newspaper, The Spectrum. I never expected to get credentials but persistence paid off and I found myself walking around the Miami Beach Convention Center - spending almost as much time shooting pictures outside as inside. I was in awe of the Life Magazine photographers and other well-known photojournalists who were also covering the event. For some reason I have a knack for recognizing people and was often able to get a few frames off before the rest of the media realized who was walking by.

Of course a lot has changed since then. Black & white film - the staple of photojournalism is now a quaint novelty along with the unfettered access journalists had - even for a young hippie looking kid with a Nikon.

As I mentioned in last weeks blog, I have the ability to spot a well known face, even out of context and that was true here in Charlotte.


Piers Morgan walks down a Charlotte street. Do you think Larry King would have recognized him? by Mickey Osterreicher

Forty years later, I am in Charlotte for the 2012 Democratic National Convention having arrived directly from Tampa, where the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as their party's candidates. As expected there are more cameras at these events than there are people; and just like the NATO Summit held in Chicago this past May, for journalists covering events outside the conventions - everyone from mainstream media, to bloggers, citizen journalists, protesters and bystanders has a camera of one kind or another. With the widespread proliferation of cellphone cameras, capable of recording high-quality images along with audio and video, everybody is documenting everything and everyone.
Remember when people held up candles at a concert? Now its cameras and even non-photojournalists have learned how to shoot a "Hail Mary." by Mickey Osterreicher

That is the main reason for my presence at these conventions. To do my best to ensure that the Constitutional right to photograph and record on public streets is not abridged during the protests held in both cities. So far so good. Only two demonstrators were arrested in Tampa and the police not only acted professionally but served as good-will ambassadors - offering journalists directions to locations and bottled water on the hot humid days outside the security perimeter. It was a far cry from the troubling incidents that occurred at the political conventions in St. Paul and Denver in 2008.

Protester march just outside of the security perimeter in Tampa for the RNC by Mickey Osterreicher

Some of that can be attributed to the fact that there were only about 500 protestors in Tampa, which may have been due to the threat of Hurricane Isaac, the police were present in overwhelming numbers and they all appeared to have embraced the First Amendment concept that citizens have a right to peacefully protest and everyone, including the media has the right to photograph and record on a public street.

After the first protest march in Charlotte on 9/2, where there were almost twice as many demonstrators, the police here are behaving in the same manner and I hope it stays that way.

Protestors are starting to gather in Charlotte for the DNC by Mickey Osterreicher 

Both Tampa and Charlotte have established security zones (see Tampa Secret Service info) around their respective convention centers. Those ordinances also ban a long list of items deemed to be potential weapons. It was thought that photographers who carried gas masks or a monopod or tripod might be cited for violating these new restrictions but that has not been the case. Also regulations in Tampa stated that unless you had a Media credential from the RNC, you may not enter the "security perimeter" around the convention center and Forum with "camcorders or large cameras with lenses over four inches." The enforcement of that rule also appeared to be lax.

It is still important to note that many of the streets in Charlotte that appear to be public are actually privately owned by many of the banks in that city, which may further complicate the right to record. As a matter of fact yesterday, I received a call from a Washington Post photographer who was told by security guards that she could not photograph the Bank of America building from a public street. Fortunately I was able to straighten that out with the head of BoA corporate security and such nonsense will not be an issue.

Signs, signs everywhere signs. It is important to find ones that say something. Marchers protesting outside Bank of America in Charlotte during the 2012 Democratic Convention. by Mickey Osterreicher

Another concern will be the enforcement of "The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011," which was signed into law in March, making it a federal offense to cause a disturbance at certain events. More specifically, anyone who trespasses on specified property or at times and locations "so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance" may be prosecuted and subject to a fine or imprisonment or both. Both conventions have been designated a "National Special Security Event" by the Department of Homeland Security.

When covering demonstrations, protests, marches and rallies you should be aware that there is a risk of arrest. Just because you may be a photographer, have a camera or believe that you have a lawful reason for being present to observe, document and report on these events does not provide immunity from being arrested along with those participating in these events.

If a police officer orders you to move, it is advisable to comply with the request. How far you move is something that you will have to decide for yourself. If you believe that the order is not a reasonable one, ask to speak to a supervisor or the public information officer if that is possible. It is important to be very aware that most police officer do not like to be questioned or challenged once they have told you to do (or not do) something and a mere hesitation, question or request may result in your detention or arrest. Only you can make that judgment call as to what to do. Every situation is different as is every police officer's reaction to your behavior.

Everyone had a camera at the NATO Summit in Chicago by Mickey Osterreicher

While covering these events police may ask to see your images, recordings or files. Be aware that you do not have to consent to such a request. They may try to intimidate, coerce or threaten you into doing so but "consent" must be voluntary. You should also know that absent consent or "exigent circumstances" an officer may not seize your camera. Most importantly - no one has any right to request that you delete your images or to do so themselves.

For many of the reasons listed above it is very important to work in pairs or groups so that someone may be able to notify those of us working to protect your rights that you have been arrested or are in police custody. Another suggestion is that, to the extent possible, video & audio recording events before a situation becomes a problem and continue to record for as long as possible. Such recordings may be the best evidence to refute whatever you may be charged with.

For more extensive information and daily updates see my NPPA Advocacy Blog. Also see this NPPA Advocacy Blog about how things went in Tamps. If you get into trouble or have questions about certain situations please feel free to contact me by email at lawyer@nppa.org or by text or cellphone at 716.983.7800. For more information and links to reference material regarding your rights as a photographer go to the NPPA Know Your Rights Page

DISCLAIMER - This blog is not intended to be legal advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. It is not possible to anticipate every situation. Laws and regulations vary from one area to another and federal, state or local laws may apply. Anyone seeking legal advice should contact an attorney in their area of the country familiar with criminal and First Amendment Law.

« Photography & The Law: Some Conventional Wisdom | Expanding the 21st Century Definition of Photography »