Know your rights: photographers — what to do if you are stopped or detained for taking photographs

When is it legal to make a video in a public place?

A kerfluffle at my local mall involves a restaurant owner accused of mocking and taking video of a special needs person having a meltdown.

Several times a week I take my son to the food court and hand him my credit card. More than half the time he chooses to patronize this establishment. (I’ll continue to let him choose, though I usually bring my meals.)

I haven’t heard the owners’ perspective represented anywhere except indirectly, after a news reporter apparently contacted their daughter. There is a language barrier involved. There may also be a cultural barrier. (Does that gesture captured in the still frame being shared around the internet mean, to the person who made it, the same thing that you and I think it means?)

If it does turn out that the owners could use a lesson in tolerance, I don’t think they’ll learn it from the racist trolls who have surfaced to spread their trash. (The racism is not dominating the conversations I’ve seen on Facebook, but it’s depressing seeing hatred anywhere in threads allegedly promoting an inclusive message.)

I’ve also also seen comments from people expressing the opinion that it is illegal to make a video of a minor having a meltdown. I don’t actually know the age of the special needs person who had the meltdown, but…

  • If you have the right to be in a public place, you can also take pictures/video of whatever is visible. (That includes children.)
  • Property owners or renters can ask you to leave. So can store employees, mall security, etc.
  • Cases where you should probably put that camera away:
    • Using a zoom lens to peek through open windows.
    • Mounting a camera on a drone to peek over a backyard fence.
    • Sitting in the balcony of a Broadway theatre.
  • If you slap pictures on a billboard to sell a product, or if you use those pictures to intimidate or harass, that’s another matter. But simply taking the pictures, or having them on your phone, is not illegal.

According to the ACLU:

Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right – and that includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties. Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply.