Photography on public streets in Atlanta

Dear Mayor Reed: It has come to the attention of the National Press Photographers Association and the eleven (11) other news organizations listed below that some police officers in your city are informing photographers that it is illegal to take photographs on public sidewalks. This week, one of our members was stopped for taking pictures near the Fox Theater. On September 28, 2015, officer R. Thomas, Jr., told the photographer that taking pictures was a violation of a city ordinance and he would arrest him and confiscate his camera equipment if he didn’t cease taking pictures.

The officer cited the following city ordinance regarding “sidewalk photographers”: Sec. 30-1316. - Prohibited acts. It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in the business of taking photographs, intended to be offered for sale, of persons on the streets and sidewalks of the city in front of any place of business other than the person's own, unless the person shall have secured and have with such person at the time the written consent of the owner or manager of that place of business. The taking of photographs of persons on the streets in front of the place of business of another without the written consent of the other shall be deemed an offense under this section, whether or not a charge is made at the time of taking the photographs, if the photographs are taken for the purpose of sale (emphasis added).

While this ordinance appears to be intended to address people taking photos and selling prints to their subjects while on the street, its overly broad and vague language is being used to prevent journalists (or anyone else with a camera) from taking pictures on a public street. This is a violation of the First Amendment. Streets, sidewalks and public parks are “traditional public spaces” in which “the rights of the state to limit the exercise of First Amendment activity are sharply circumscribed.” Photography is strictly protected by the Constitution as (in this case) both an expressive form of speech and for newsgathering. The mere fact that photographs are offered for sale (or licensing) does not alter their status as protected First Amendment activity. Books, newspapers, magazines, and films are all sold at a profit but that does not affect their level of First Amendment protection.

Nationwide, photographers are increasingly subject to harassment by police officers, who, under color of law, cite privacy, safety and security concerns as a pretext to chill free speech and expression or to impede the ability to gather news. Given the experience of one of our members this week in your city, the NPPA is concerned that this ordinance has provided the police with unbridled discretion to abridge the rights of photographers covering matters of public concern.

It is our position that this facially defective regulation will only further contribute to the erroneous belief by law enforcement that public photography may be arbitrarily limited or curtailed. We therefore respectfully request that it be repealed immediately. In the alternative, we propose to work with your office to draft revised language that would be more narrowly tailored to serve a substantial government interest as a reasonable time, place and manner restriction on commercial photography.

Thank you for your attention in this matter. I look forward to your prompt response so that we may resolve this issue as expeditiously and amicably as possible.

Very truly yours,

Mickey H. Osterreicher

General Counsel

On behalf of:

American Society of News Editors

American Society of Media Photographers

Associated Press Photo Managers

Associated Press Managing Editors

Association of Alternative Newsmedia

Atlanta Press Club

Georgia Press Association

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Society of Professional Journalists

Student Press Law Center

The Associated Press

cc: Council Member Ceasar C. Mitchell Council Member Carla Smith Council Member Kwanza Hall Council Member Ivory Lee Young Council Member Cleta Winslow Council Member Natalyn M. Archibong Council Member Alex Wan Council Member Howard Shook Council Member Yolanda Adrean Council Member Felicia Moore Council Member C.T. Martin Council Member Keisha Bottoms Council Member Joyce Sheperd Council Member Michael Julian Bond Council Member Mary Norwood Council Member Andre Dickens City Attorney Cathy Hampton Director of Communications Ann Torres