Anti-photography law gone mad!!!

by Ned Levi on March 28, 2011

Farm Field by NSL Photography

You’re traveling in Hamilton County, Florida, and see a gorgeous farming landscape with hay bales shiny from the setting sun, and get a great photograph of the scene. Perhaps you come across a great river scene along the Indian River in Florida, with rows of orange trees in the background, and snap a photo of it.

Come this July, had a proposed law not been changed, you could have been charged with 2 counts of first degree felony photography, punishable by serious jail time, if a Florida statute became law without its proposed changes.

I’ve discussed public photography by travelers in the past.

While traveling, if you’re taking photographs of public property, generally there are no restrictions you need worry about in the U.S. While on public property, you can generally photograph anything and anyone, as there is no expectation of privacy. There are some specific restrictions, such as photography on military bases and Department of Energy complexes.

On the other hand, if you’re taking photographs on private property, even private property with general public access, property owners’ rights to regulate photography on their properties, has been generally upheld in the courts in the U.S. and many other countries as well.

For example, at the Empire State Building in New York, if you’re on the observation deck, you may take photographs there, but the use of a tripod or monopod is strictly prohibited.

At the Vatican in Rome, photography in St. Peter’s Basilica is permitted, even flash photography, though not necessarily during mass, but flash photography in the Vatican museums isn’t permitted and all photography in the Sistine Chapel is forbidden.

When on private property, not only do the rules of the property owner control you’re ability to take photographs while on their property, but there may be a need to consider copyright concerns about buildings you’re photographing, unless they were built on or before December 1, 1990. Before that date, buildings did not have copyright protection, and therefore their appearance and design are, by definition, in the public domain. Don’t forget, building owners don’t necessarily hold the copyright for their buildings.

In the US, it is generally assumed that photographs of private property, taken from public property, are legal.

That being said, beware that some states, like Florida, apparently intend to try to make some restrictions to that general rule.

So far, at this point in time however, photographs of private property taken from public property remain generally legal. In addition, despite the fact that buildings, for example, could be copyrighted, as long as a photograph is taken from public property, without using extraordinary means to view the property from public property, photographers are exempt from the copyright law. So, if you take a building’s photograph, from a public space you are not infringing on the building’s copyright owner’s rights. This exception includes private as well as public buildings.

In Florida, State Senator Jim Norman (R) (Tampa), wanted to change that, at least in the case of farms. He proposed to make it a first-degree felony to photograph a farm without first obtaining written permission from the owner. A farm is defined as any land “cultivated for the purpose of agricultural production, the raising and breeding of domestic animals or the storage of a commodity.”

Are you are shaking your head in disbelief? If you can’t believe anyone would propose a law this insane, think again. Here’s a link to SB 1246 as proposed by Senator Norman.

Wilton Simpson, a farmer who lives in Norman’s district, said the bill is needed to protect the property rights of farmers and the “intellectual property” involving farm operations. Simpson, also said the law would prevent people from posing as farmworkers so that they can secretly film agricultural operations.

Of course, Simpson couldn’t name a single instance when that happened.

Seriously, are you kidding me Mr. Simpson? What intellectual property is there to be protected from me taking a photo of your farm?

This bill as originally proposed was so crazy, it would have made it a first degree felony to photograph a farm from a public road, where the farmer enjoys no expectation of privacy whatsoever.

Talk about a law which would violate our First Amendment Rights!

NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) Attorney Mickey Osterreicher contacted Senator Norman’s staff and received assurances that the bill would be amended to be specifically related to trespassers on private property.

Fortunately, the proposed law now exempts photographers on public property, including public roads, and changes the violation to be a misdemeanor, but the law will still have a chilling effect on Freedom of the Press. It puts the subjects of news or editorial articles in a bargaining position for the right to photograph them or what they do, which interferes with objective and honest reporting.

Not just that, but travelers who are unaware of the Florida law, or who may inch on to a farmer’s property to get a better photo of the haystacks in the field, or the oranges in the orchard, still may be slapped with fines and or some jail time.

This law is a wrong headed example of a proposed statute which is completely beyond the character of a free republic, a democracy, and the United States of America.

Ned Levi is a long time professional photographer with a passion for wildlife and travel photography. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog which is included in Photography Colleges’Top 100 Travel Photography Blogs.”

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  • TJ Thornton

    I thought this headline was the beginning of pranks for April Fools Day.
    Here we are, in the midst of an incredible recession, and this is the best they can come up with?

    Nero fiddles, while Rome burns!

  • Kairho

    Hey, it’s FLorida! What can be expected but off the wall and weird laws?

    Doesn’t every state have a CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT covering “Limiting cruel and inhumane confinement of pigs during pregnancy”?

  • DaveS

    I have to agree. This is wrong. Sure, if you sneak onto someone’s property to get pictures for espionage (political or economic) purposes, that’s illegal, but if something is open to view to the casual passer-by, it is hardly a business secret.

  • Jeff L

    Hmm. I wonder if some recent exposes on the working conditions of migrant workers could have something to do with this.. Hmm…

  • Marilyn Long

    I am wondering what kinds of crops Mr. Simpson is raising on his farm or where the bodies are buried. As a farmer’s daughter, I am amazed that there is some revolutionary new farming method which needs protection as an intellectual property.

  • Lyn G

    Are you sure Mr. Simpson’s first name isn’t Homer?

  • bodega

    My guess is that the farm issue stems from animal rights activists who have managed their way into private property and filmed farming practices while undercover. It has happened here in CA several times.

  • Carrie Charney

    After watching what our government has become over my lifetime, I too am wondering what conditions exist and what clandestine operations are happening on our farms.

  • Josh

    Just FYI: The reason flash photography is permitted in St Peter’s is that the artwork there consists of statuary and art which at first appears to be paintings but is actually very finely detailed mosaics which do not suffer the damaging cumulative effect from photographic flash that a painting would. The Louvre also has a very generous policy on photography.

  • Ken

    This almost as bad as the dumb things coming out Phoenix AZ, our wonderful state capital.

  • Dolores

    The last time I was stopped by police for taking a photograph it was 1975 in Leipzig in Communist East Germany. Granted, it was a propaganda billboard. Perfect visual souvenir to bring back home and show how different it is to live in a democratic society like the U.S.

  • Em Hoop

    I’m with Marilyn Long….where are the bodies buried? Does this mean all manner of anti-environmental, pro-slavery, animal abuse, and pot production will be buried on these farms, far from the rule of law and justice?

    Republicans seem bent on creating a society of secrets. East Germany as a model? Thanks, Delores, for pointing out the comparison. Soon we won’t recognize this as the America we once knew. The Republican machine grinds finely indeed.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/iltpy Steve

    Silence (the photographer)! I KEEL YOU!
    Very valid points, all. When did America become scared that a photographer or a tourist would threaten a farmer, or the viability of a farm, with a photo?
    Sign in the field?? { CAUTION! Farmer suspicious of anyone who thinks a farm provides the opportunity for an idyllic representation of the American way! Standing on public property and creating artwork using any visual image depicting this farm will cause the artist to be subject to a fate worse than many murderers and armed robbers. Be forewarned. Photographers will be shot on sight! Those surviving will experience life in prison and an inmates version of an adjustable zoom lens.}
    Possible that the farmer pronounces ‘tourist’ and ‘terrorist’ the same?? “I seen me some a them *turrists* ’round he-ah, ya’ll he-ah? An’ ah ain’t puttin’ up with it!” I was raised in S.C. and my parents live in FL, so I can talk like this about the south and get away with it. Don’t like it? Take a picture of my farm and we’ll see what happens to ya! ;-D

  • Paul Thompson

    This is about farmers hiding wrong doing, whether it be pollution, mistreatment of animals or of agricultural workers, especially migrant workers. The proponents (another state considering such a law is Iowa) are only concerned with agribusiness being caught doing something wrong. Unless you believe that people should have sufficient privacy that they cannot be caught doing wrong, it has nothing to do with privacy.

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Ned Levi discusses travel photography of public and private property and the law in light of a new law proposed in Florida which had attempted to restrict photography of private property from public property, and still may pose a problem for Florida travelers.