The rights of the press

I was on a Flickr discussion group reading a question from a photographer who got hassled by security guards while he shot a demonstration in Toronto last weekend. The guards insisted he couldn’t take photos of them or the building they were protecting.

Of course, they were entirely wrong about that.

In Canada, with some exceptions, you can take photos of anybody anywhere doing anything anytime you’re in a public place. Period.*

It’s enshrined in the Canadian Constitution.

But really, do we expect some guy (or gal) in a uniform who is getting paid $12 an hour to understand what’s at stake here?

Of course not.

However, on the other hand someone who objects to having the image captured in a camera may take great exception to someone who continues to shoot photos. And security guards, who IMHO are the lowest form of protectors of the law and rights of privacy often resort to illegal violent behaviour or threats of violence to get their way.

The simple response (and one I used to counsel my news staff to offer) is an apology. As in “Oh dear. I’m so sorry.” And then walk back 50 to 75 feet and keep shooting. The guard (or the cop as was often the case) is tied to the location they were ordered to guard. They aren’t likely to chase you around the block to get at your images.

Now in my almost 40 years of photojournalism I’ve had more than one run-in with over zealous authority. If I could, I always backed away. I also always got the images I wanted. One of the classic cases of police interference with a journalist came at a horrendous car-truck crash which killed at least one young driver. The daily news photographer (who I knew personally) was arrested and charged with obstruction. (And it’s almost always a charge of obstruction or failing to obey. Both of which are almost always bogus.) The judge who heard the case threw out the obstruction charge when the photographer produced a photo in court that showed the crash site which was surrounded by police, fire and ambulance personnel all standing around while they waited for the coroner to arrive. Later it was learned that the boy who died was the son of a police officer. Tragic yes. Of course. But news. Absolutely.

Look there were many times I took photos of awful situations. I can remember one where a small car was ripped in two by the force of the impact. The four teenagers who died in the crash were similarly ripped apart and yet I shot photos of the scene and some photos I was pretty sure we’d never publish. And I know some people at the scene and those who saw the photos we did publish objected. I’m also convinced that some parents sat their teenage boys down after seeing these photos and had a long talk about the dangers of speeding and having too many kids in the car.

The accident happened at least 30 years ago on a country road just north of Toronto. Happened around this time of year too. I remember it like it was yesterday. The four boys who died…well they’re dead and maybe, just maybe, some other kids made a decision not to be so…youthfully carefree behind the wheel and are alive today.

 

* You can’t publish photos of juveniles who are being arrested. You can (and should) take the images. How can you tell if a kid is of the age of majority out in the field?

* You can’t publish photos of people being held under the Mental Health Act. If possible, you shouldn’t even take the photos of them. (I do have a heart.)

* There is no law in the Canadian Criminal Code that says “no photography” and some officials don’t seem to know that.

* You can be asked to leave private property. You can be escorted out. You can’t be assaulted (although) that happens. Nobody can insist you erase anything.

* The rules change in other countries. Britain has just about lost any credibility when it comes to freedom of the press. The U.S. teeters on the edge. Don’t take photos in Greek airports.

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