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US DOT HQ security: No photos allowed, because I said so

If you thought insane no-photography policies were taken care of after last summer's Union Station debacle, think again. On Sunday, around 6:30 pm, I stopped on M Street SE to photograph two of the transportation-inspired public art installations that surround the US DOT headquarters. I was taking a photograph of an installation of vintage bicycles when a security guard some distance away yelled in my general direction. I couldn't understand what he said, so I pointed at myself to see if he was speaking to me but he made no further motion. I continued photographing until he approached me.

One of the offending photos, with the security guard in the background.

"What's going on here?" he asked.

"I'm photographing the bicycles," I replied. He continued walking, and I rode down to the next installation—three vintage gas pumps—and began taking photos of them.

"You can't do that here," he told me. I asked him why not. "It's the rules, for security," he said. I asked him what rule prevented me from taking photographs of public art, but he said that he could not tell me the rule. I asked if he worked for DOT or a subcontractor hired for security. "I can't tell you that," he replied again. I asked for his name, which he also refused to tell me.

"So you can't tell me the rule, your name, or who you work for?" I asked him.

"Nope," he replied. Luckily, at that point I was already done taking photographs, so I wished him a good evening and continued my ride.

I would raise this issue with the head of security at US DOT headquarters, but the guard refused to provide any information about who he works for. Unfortunately, this is just another example of overzealous and misinformed security enforcement that clamps down on the exercise of First Amendment rights. The Department of Veterans Affairs' recent seizure of audio recordings from WAMU reporter David Schultz has put unreasonable First Amendment restrictions in the news lately. If you find yourself in a similar situation, you may want to take a look at some information on the legal rights of photographers (via Jaime Fearer). If you are interested in national coverage of photographers' rights, be sure to visit Photography is Not a Crime, the website of Carlos Miller, who was arrested after taking photographs of Miami police.

Stephen Miller lived in the District from 2008 to 2011 and is now a student at Pratt Institute's city and regional planning masters program. 


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Interesting (and sad).

I work across the street, I'll have to stop by and take some pictures to see what comes of it. I do like all of the transportation-related displays on the sidewalk.

by Ryan on Apr 16, 2009 3:21 pm • linkreport

If he can't tell you the rule, his name, or who he works for, he can't very well arrest you then, can he?

And if he tried, dial 911 and you'd have quite the lawsuit on your hands.

by general malaise on Apr 16, 2009 4:27 pm • linkreport

If he won't tell you who he is, who he represents, or why he's harassing you, threaten to call the police. Alternately, if you're on public property and he will tell you all of the above but is still harassing you, threaten to call the police. Alternately, if he's trying to do more than escort you off of private property which he admits to guarding (like delete your photos), resist and threaten to call the police.

If threats don't work and the harassment continues, or if anything is taken from you, call the police on the emergency line.

Unless he's intervening in a crime, the only thing a security guard can do is escort you off the premises nonviolently, once you establish that he has the authority to do so.

If he's a peace officer (including different types of police officer, and law enforcement officials outside the police, but not private security guards), he can detain you for questioning, but not destroy your property against your will - he has to follow due process of law.

by Squalish on Apr 16, 2009 4:27 pm • linkreport

Establishing that he's a peace officer and thus has the authority to detain you is necessary to make you liable for any of the crimes of resisting arrest, obstruction of justice, etc. They MUST identify themselves in a case where they're trying to use force/intimidation in pursuance of their duties - and false identification as a peace officer is a rather serious crime.

by Squalish on Apr 16, 2009 4:33 pm • linkreport

I was about to follow up Squalish's earlier comment with almost the same thing as their second. Absolutely correct.

by general malaise on Apr 16, 2009 4:41 pm • linkreport

Even if you don't know his name or anything, I still think you should contact the head of DOT security. They should know it's going on - just tell them what's in this post. Who knows? The head of security might just call a meeting.

by Ed on Apr 16, 2009 4:42 pm • linkreport

Amendment to my first sentence of my first post - If he won't identify himself or his employer, threaten to call the DoT security department (and discuss this productively with management, or get this for-all-you-know-imposter kicked off the property), and then the police.

by Squalish on Apr 16, 2009 4:52 pm • linkreport

This may help:

by Eileen on Apr 16, 2009 5:55 pm • linkreport

I love yuppies who come to DC and are surprised to find out the feds would appreciate if you actually didn't take pictures of their land.

Take it up with the GSA, I'm sure they'll fast-track your case to the top of the docket. Put your money where your mouth is.

by MPC on Apr 16, 2009 5:56 pm • linkreport

Great comments here. I really wish these damned rent-a-cops would just go stick it. They regularly violate peoples' consitutional rights with impunity. That has to stop. Did nobody learn anything from the Union Station photography affair?

by Sean Robertson on Apr 16, 2009 5:57 pm • linkreport

The federal government can be a really bad neighbor. This reminds me of the US capitol police stopping and hassling cyclists. When I worked for a scary three letter agency back in the day they used to stop me on my bike every single morning and search my messenger bag. I was stopped two weeks ago by the US Capitol police and they wanted to confiscate my bike because I couldn't prove it was registered. A friend of mine was almost arrested for the same offense.

So, from one oft-maligned community to another, we feel your pain.

by JTS on Apr 16, 2009 6:01 pm • linkreport

Go ahead MPC, explain to all us yuppies just how taking pictures is illegal.

by BeyondDC on Apr 16, 2009 6:14 pm • linkreport

Because, believe it or not, they don't like it when people bomb their buildings or fly planes into them.

by MPC on Apr 16, 2009 6:18 pm • linkreport

I've had problems with USDOT ever since it arrived. They even hassle me from time to time when I'm trying to take pictures of stuff at The Yards, which is not on USDOT property.

I generally just very politely refuse to answer any of their questions. It would probably be different if I were on USDOT property taking photos of the USDOT building. But even then they can't really arrest you--they can just make your lives miserable.

It's also more likely that you'll get hassled if you're carrying an SLR rather than a point-and-shoot.

I've also been chased down by *both* Navy Yard security and the DC cops that they called when I stood on M Street (public property) taking photos of the Hull Street gate. The best they can do is ask me to delete the photos from my camera.

(It's different inside the gates, I imagine.)

I had a DC cop hassle me one time for taking pictures of the ballpark footprint, before demolition even began, because I was standing on Southeast Federal Center property (they were more concerned I think that I might have been taking photos of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency building at 1st and M, which just pointing a camera in its direction will get guns pointed at you if you're not careful).

by JD on Apr 16, 2009 6:25 pm • linkreport

The NGA is too busy protecting our freedoms to have time to worry about your photographer's rights.

by MPC on Apr 16, 2009 6:31 pm • linkreport

JD, your many readers including myself are extremely thankful you've ignored these stupid "security" personnel.

by David Alpert on Apr 16, 2009 6:32 pm • linkreport

yes, MPC, the department of tranportation is protecting your freedoms by restricting your freedoms.

NGA is extremely well protected; you could take a picture of the fence, tops. DOT put that stuff out there. i guarantee that this guard had bad info on what to protect against. someone is taking photos of transformer boxes or people coming in and out, i'm with you. this, however, is ridiculous

by JTS on Apr 16, 2009 7:01 pm • linkreport

Maybe the art at the DOT is stolen. That would explain why they're touchy about photographs.

by Turnip on Apr 16, 2009 7:27 pm • linkreport

Next time, take a picture of the guy, if you dare.

by Trulee Pist on Apr 16, 2009 7:35 pm • linkreport

The idea that government must curtail civil liberties to protect the homeland is essentially the Fascist party line. For many years the western democracies boasted of the freedom and civil liberties they enjoyed, in contrast to dictatorships around the world. Given that heritage, it's all the more remarkable how quickly some Americans would toss away basic rights on the flimsiest of pretexts. It can be frightening to fight thugs and illegal incursions on civil liberties, but it is necessary.

by Laurence Aurbach on Apr 16, 2009 7:40 pm • linkreport

Thanks, David, there's definitely been some adventures over the years. I forgot the time toward the end of the construction of the *publicly funded* baseball stadium that one of the security guards there tried to get me to stop taking pictures, when I was standing across the street, 100% not on the stadium property, telling me that it was illegal.

There were also those great stories of Opening Day 2008 at the ballpark when Secret Service agents tried to get people to stop taking photos and delete already taken shots of the lines at the magnetometers, and defended themselves with the wonderfully parsed language of "we have the right to ask people to delete those images"--yes, and the people have the right to ignore the request.

As JTS said, I think in some cases the Hired Badge Harrys either misunderstand their marching orders when it comes to photographers, or their bosses tell them incorrectly that the taking of photos from public property is illegal. And it's also an easy way for them to act like they're doing their job.

by JD on Apr 16, 2009 8:26 pm • linkreport

Heh, walking home this evening by the Capitol I was passing by the Senate when a capitol policeman told me to turn around and walk "back toward where those officers are standing" (they were roughly standing in front of the main portico). The problem being this was 400 feet opposite the direction I wanted to go, I ended up looping all the way around the capitol grounds and walking up PA Ave. Apart from the significant inconvenience I was incensed that the officer who told me to turn around was carrying a shotgun. Like, couldn't you have one of the half dozen other officers who are just milling around tell the civilians to step back?

by Steve on Apr 16, 2009 9:30 pm • linkreport

The same thing happened to me when I was taking photos of the DoT building and the ornate water fountain beside it.

Fortunately, I had already taken my photos, so there wasn't much more to argue about. I posted the photos on Flickr, anyway (1, 2, 3, 4)

This harassment seems to be a policy there. Perhaps it's high time for a shutterbug protests à la Union Station.

by Capitol Dome on Apr 16, 2009 9:53 pm • linkreport

I work for USDOT, and I can tell you that the contracted security staff is just as rude to actual USDOT employees as well. They generally don't know what the hell they are talking about and tt's miserable to deal with them.

by AA on Apr 17, 2009 1:50 am • linkreport

i've been hassled by a federal guard in atlanta photographing the pig monorail on display in the window of the old rich's dept store which is now a federal building.

also been hassled for photographing the exterior of the under demolition 'one flew over the cuckoos nest' state mental hospital in oregon. the security guard even went thru the photos on my camera to see what shots i had taken. i assumed he was a state official so i didnt put up much resistance.

the key is to quickly take your photographs before they tell you to stop and go for the prime photo-ops first. certainly thats what you do when you know you might get hassled, but you dont always expect to get hassled taking a photo. when they start shouting from a distance at you shoot the hell out of your subject matter until they come over. and of course use extra caution around government security guards since they have authority. also while camera phones have crappy quality, its not a bad way to get photos if you think you might get hassled.

by jon on Apr 17, 2009 3:18 am • linkreport

Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, it's illegal to take photographs of Atomic Energy Commission facilities. The AEC was since split into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy. So if you go around snapping photos of the NRC or DOE headquarters or of, say, the Los Alamos National Lab, you're breaking the law.

I have no idea whether this statute has ever been challenged in court or how often these two agencies or their predecessors have actually gone after anyone for violations; also I have no idea whether there are any similar statutes for other government agencies. It wouldn't surprise me if, say, the military or intelligence agencies have similar statutes. I can't see why DOT would, but who knows...

by anonymous on Apr 17, 2009 7:20 am • linkreport

@anonymous: The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 does not, not, make it "illegal to take photographs of Atomic Energy Commission facilities." The Act, rather, only prohibits photographs of facilities "designated by the President as requiring protection against the general dissemination of information relative

thereto." [42 USC 2278b.]

by Joel Lawson on Apr 17, 2009 10:01 am • linkreport


The basic assumption you have to operate under as a photographer is: Noone is *ever* allowed to snatch your camera and destroy your property (delete your pics). They have no right, regardless of their status. At all. Even if it's to the point of arresting you (which will immediately get thrown out, and then get them sued), deleting the pictures would be destroying evidence.

A peace officer has the right, upon reasonable suspicion that you're committing a crime, to detain you in a limited manner for questioning & investigation - it may include looking at your pictures ("Searching you"), But not deleting them. If you want to resist without being arrested and you don't think you've done anything arrestable, repeat the words "I do not consent to a search" or "I do not consent to being questioned", after having made your identity clear(important). There are a hell of a lot of ways that a cop can try to force a person who doesn't want to talk into either committing a crime or answering questions, but those two lines are pretty bulletproof.

Again: You almost always have a right to take pictures of private property for noncommercial uses. The only right in question, and the only right a security guard is qualified to determine, is whether you have permission to stand on the private property, and how to stop the crime of trespassing.

Disclaimer: IANAL

by Squalish on Apr 17, 2009 12:10 pm • linkreport

These sort of incidents just never end, do they? Sadly, many security guards aren't well-informed about the law. You should really try to get a comment from the DOT.

We posted about your story on our blog -

by discarted on Apr 17, 2009 8:57 pm • linkreport

I will be taking crowd photographs, some photos will have dozens of individuals in them while others may only have a few, these photos will be taken in public places, taken during free events around the city and published for a book I am doing. Do I need model releases from every individual in these photographs. What are my rights when using photos in this manner.

by Kel on Apr 26, 2009 11:40 pm • linkreport

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