As cell phones and digital cameras become more and more prevalent, an ever-growing percentage of our world gets committed to virtual film each day. It is hard to get a device now that lacks some capacity to record the world around it, and the convenience of doing so has started to conflict with the ever-present security concerns that are a reality in our society today. Photographers ranging from professional journalists to curious passersby have made the news recently for run-ins with law enforcement, and since everybody's first instinct when they see something interesting these days is to whip out their smart phones, it is worth discussing where and when it is appropriate to do so.
First up- still photography. This is the easier category. The basic rule is that anywhere you are allowed to be as an anonymous citizen, you are allowed to photograph. This includes airports, subways, city streets, and government buildings. The clearest exception to this rule is that you are not allowed to photograph someone where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. For any potential paparazzi out there, this means that just because you can see into someone's bedroom through a window and two mirrors while standing on a public street, it does not give you permission to snap away for devious monetary gain. Also, even though you can see a government airstrip a mile away from behind a barbed wire fence, the tall men in dark suits won't take kindly to you hauling out your ultra-telephoto lens in order to get a better look. Good summaries of the rights of photographers can be found here http://www.usatoday.com/tech/columnist/andrewkantor/2005-12-29-camera-laws_x.htm and here http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm
Unfortunately, despite many laws protecting citizens, law-enforcement officers occasionally get overzealous when trying to do what they think is right. One case that made the news for it's sheer absurdity was that of Duane Kurzic, who was wrongfully detained for taking innocuous pictures in an Amtrak station. The kicker was that he was actually taking pictures for a contest sponsored by Amtrak (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/nyregion/28about.html ) that specifically asked for pictures of their trains and stations.
The question is whether or not police officers have a reasonable expectation of privacy when conducting their standard duties. A judge ended up ruling "no" in a decision in Maryland late last year, in which a man's cameras and computers where seized after he posted a video of a traffic stop online. But similar prosecutions have popped up in other states, as there has been no decision about the issue on a federal level. Some states, like Connecticut, are being proactive and specifically addressing these cases with new laws.
The video of a m an named Narces Benoit w ho happened to witness a police shootout in Miami went viral yesterday- the video shows officers pursuing and drawing weapons Benoit him after he left the scene, shouting that he was not allowed to be recording. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2000366/Moment-cop-pointed-gun-head-innocent-witness-filmed-shooting-Florida.html (Warning the video in the article is fairly graphic.)
In short: use common sense, know your rights, and don't be afraid to stand up for them.
Edit: A relevant story broke the day after this blog post was published- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/08/chicago-district-attorney-recording-bad-cops_n_872921.html