Mind your camera when you're traveling this summer.
Taking an innocent snapshot in a public area may get you in trouble, even if photography is allowed. It almost landed Ryan Miklus behind bars when he flew from Phoenix to Reno with his parents recently.
When Miklus tried to videotape an altercation between his mother and a TSA agent, another officer tried to stop him. "You are not allowed to film," the officer says on the video. "You need to go. You cannot film us."
"Where does it say that?" Miklus asks. "Show me the law. Show it to me and I'll stop."
The agent doesn't answer, but leaves and returns with several airline employees, one of whom tells Miklus that it's "against the law" to take photos at a security checkpoint.
"Put down the camera!" the employee orders. Miklus continues taping. A police officer later refuses to arrest him.
Such incidents are becoming increasingly common, making shutterbugs hesitant to take pictures that they're well within their rights to take. They include security guards harassing a photographer shooting in a Los Angeles park and a man being threatened for videotaping a whale in the Florida Keys. TSA screening areas are a flashpoint for these encounters, with officers sometimes threatening passengers, blocking their view or citing nonexistent rules in an effort to force them to stop taking photos.
"I used to deal with one of these a month," says Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). "Then it was weekly. Now it's almost every day. Citizens are being told that they can't take pictures out in public -- whether it's a building, a bridge or a train."
What Does This Mean for Travelers?
Travelers are confused. Bridget Garrity, an attorney from Torrington, Conn., recently spotted a sign at BWI Marshall Airport suggesting that taking photos of TSA screeners is illegal. "It was hung on the wall right above the entry to the security lanes for the machines," she says. "It did have some reference to a federal code, but I couldn't get it all down." Garrity was tempted to take a picture of the sign, but was afraid that she might be breaking the law.
Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for BWI, confirmed the signs near the screening area, saying that they're there because "TSA typically discourages photography at its checkpoints."
Why the crackdown on photography? Carlos Miller, a Miami-based multimedia journalist and author of the blog Photography Is Not a Crime (www.photographyisntacrime.com), says that law enforcement agencies have felt threatened by photographers since the videotape of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King made the rounds in 1991. It accelerated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has spun out of control with the development of social media, location-based technology and cellphones with easy-to-use digital cameras. "Cops feel as if they have to protect themselves," he says.
There's a second reason why photography in public places is frowned upon, according to Miller and others. Officials assume that there's a link between photography and terrorism, so anyone taking pictures of airports, screening areas, parks, bridges or any other site that terrorists could put in their crosshairs becomes a suspect, they say.
The Miklus incident has prompted the TSA to review its policy on photography at screening areas, according to a post on the agency's website. Many agency-watchers worry that the government will try to ban photography, but when I asked the TSA about the review, it said that the statement on the website has been misinterpreted. "We recognize that using video and photography equipment is a constitutionally protected activity," TSA spokesman Greg Soule told me.
The agency is only reviewing its guidance to officers, he said, "to ensure consistent application" of its regulations. TSA posted a clarification on its site shortly after my inquiry.
What Are Your Rights?
So what are the rules? And what should you do if you're told to stop filming or photographing?
Osterreicher says that there are only two public areas in the United States where you can't shoot pictures: military bases and nuclear facilities. "The warnings are clearly posted," he says. "Otherwise, if the public is allowed, then so are their rights."
But officials don't necessarily agree with that broad interpretation. For example, the TSA's current policy is that photography at security screening areas is permitted, as long as it doesn't interfere with the screening process. But what, exactly, constitutes interference? The agency also prohibits photography of its screening equipment, specifically the screen that shows scanned items. But that rule would appear to contradict federal law, since the screening equipment is in a public area.
And while it's OK to take personal photographs in state and national parks, commercial photos usually require a permit. Park police who don't want you to take pictures can exploit that rule by drawing a fine line between an amateur and a professional photographer.
Indeed, what constitutes the difference? Is it the tripod, the price of the camera or the quality of the footage? When I tried to take photos in Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna, Fla., last year, a park official told me that I would have to pay $75 for a photography permit. But I could avoid the fee if I left some of my equipment in the car -- specifically my tripod.
It's an odd predicament, since we travel in a surveillance society. Law enforcement agencies can place cameras in public areas and monitor our comings and goings, but when we try to take pictures, we're sometimes told that it's not allowed. Why the double standard? Should you stand up for your constitutional rights the next time you try to take a snapshot of your family at the airport and a stern-faced security agent tells you that it's illegal?
If you're on vacation, it's probably not worth it. That's the advice Osterreicher gives NPPA members, too: It's not worth a trip to jail. "Be courteous, be respectful and don't get into an argument," he says. "Should you have the time and want to push the issue, ask to speak to a supervisor or report the incident to that agency as soon as possible. Otherwise, they have a badge and you may lose the argument."
"Just say, 'Yes, officer, thank you, officer.' And walk away."
Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c)2011 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.