By Donald R. Winslow
© 2009 News Photographer magazine
DURHAM, NC – The National Press Photographers Association has objected to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's remarks made during a televised interview on Fox News that the public should be suspicious of photographers, and have told her as much in a letter from NPPA leadership.
In an television interview during the last week of July, Secretary Napolitano asked citizens to report "when they see something unusual, if they see, for example, somebody continually taking photographs of a piece of critical infrastructure that doesn't seem to make any sense.”
"Photography by itself should not be considered suspicious activity, and it is protected by the First Amendment," NPPA president Bob Carey wrote to Napolitano.
"NPPA has expressed its concern about this matter in the past with different governmental agencies, as there is no statue, rule, or regulation prohibiting photography on or of public property," Carey wrote.
Napolitano's comments reek of the same misguided paranoia exhibited by London's Metropolitan Police during a five-week campaign in March 2008 that urged "loyal citizens" to snitch on any photographer who seemed "odd." Complete with street posters and an advertising campaign that ran in newspapers, the scare-tactic warnings urged Brits to think that "people on the street who have more than one cell phone, or who are taking pictures ... could be involved in terrorism."
In the UK, by law a photographer can take pictures of anything that's in public view (even private property, if it can be seen by standing on public land).
NPPA leadership was quick to react to Napolitano's troubling remarks.
"During an era when the world is on alert, the balance between vigilance and over-zealousness creates a slipperyslope. Since 9/11, we have seen far too many occasions where photojournalists, as well as ordinary citizens, have been harassed and arrested merely for taking photographs," Carey told Napolitano.
"Your statement will only add to the misunderstanding by the general public, police, and security that photography in public places is an activity that can be banned or made illegal in the name of security. Legal precedent says otherwise, and we struggle continuously to educate leaders on this," Carey wrote.
NPPA has made great progress in helping to implement reasonable photographic policies and to change mindsets seen in regressive policies including working with New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Amtrak, and numerous law enforcement agencies and state legislatures. NPPA has joined forces with the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in the past to support ACLU actions against police officers and agencies who have been too aggressive against photographers, both professionals and civilians.
"We hope that as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security you will reconsider the implications of your statement," Carey said.
"Rather than belabor the point, NPPA would like to work with the Department of Homeland Security to help develop reasonable and workable policies and practices to help avoid future problems," Carey said. "In the spirit of cooperation I respectfully request that you meet with me and our general counsel to discuss this issue."