Is it or isn’t it legal to take photographs at the airport?

by on November 23, 2010 · 14 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Culture, Health, Media, Organizing, San Diego, War and Peace

An article in the Voice of San Diego this morning raises the issue whether that the San Diego airport is violating the First Amendment by prohibiting photos, videos, taping, and other recordings in the airport.

First, the Voice in an earlier post, had stated that it appeared that our famous “don’t touch my junk” guy John Tyner won’t be liable for recording what happened. This despite California having some of the toughest laws against recording private conversations – and whether recording a conversation is legal revolves around the key question whether the person being recorded has an expectation of privacy – which is doubtful at an international airport like Lindbergh Field.

But then on last Friday, November 19th, another guy, in order to avoid the body scanner and pat down, took off his clothes down to his briefs at the security checkpoint. He was cited for trying to record his incident, among other charges. Plus the airport took his iPhone.  The Voice reported:

The Transportation Security Administration — the agency behind all those new X-rays and pat-downs — doesn’t care whether you record video or audio in an airport. It has no policy against it. But the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority does.

The airport’s code says this:

No person shall take still, motion or sound motion pictures or voice recordings on the facilities and airports under the jurisdiction of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority (the ‘Authority’) without written permission from the Authority’s Executive Director or his or her designee.”

The Voice asked Ronald Powell, a rep of the San Diego Port District that enforces the law at Lindbergh, why the rule. He replied: “I think this is all about security.” Powell told the Voice that the latest guy, Sam Wolanyk – apparently an “open-carry” advocate – was taken into custody and brought to the Harbor Police substation at Lindbergh, where he was cited for avoiding security screening, interfering with airport security, and – get this – recording at the airport without permission.  Wolanyk’s companion was also cited for recording without permission and her video camera was confiscated.

The Voice did a little digging and contacted the Californians Aware – a state-wide “watchdog” group. Terry Francke – its head – told the Voice that he felt it was doubtful the airport’s recording prohibition would stand up to a legal challenge.  The airport still has to follow the First Amendment. He told the Voice:

“Normally when regulations are justified through limited control on time, place or manner, they have to serve a very important government purpose.” … He said the part of the airport’s rule that allows filming with permission raises questions about who could legally record and who couldn’t.

The following was taken right off the TSA Blog:

Unfortunately, there isn’t a cookie cutter answer that can be applied to all of our screening locations and airports. It’s important to note that we know there’s a difference between someone taking a casual photo and someone doing surveillance, but if you are taking pictures at or near the checkpoint, don’t be surprised if someone (TSA, airport police, or a curious passenger) asks you what you’re up to.

We don’t prohibit public, passengers or press from photographing, videotaping, or filming at screening locations. You can take pictures at our checkpoints as long as you’re not interfering with the screening process or slowing things down. We also ask that you do not film or take pictures of our monitors.

However… while the TSA does not prohibit photographs at screening locations, local laws, state statutes, or local ordinances might. Your best bet is to call ahead and see what that specific airport’s policy is.

I suggest you use the Got Feedback program to directly contact the Customer Support Manager at the airport you’re going to be traveling through. They will have an answer for you and if they don’t, they can connect you with somebody who does. Of course, if you’re a member of the press, you should contact the TSA Office of Public Affairs.

I’ve taken photographs in checkpoints, terminals, and on planes and I have never had an issue. I know some of you have and hopefully this information helps you a little.

This all sounds like it’s as clear as mud. But with tomorrow, November 24th, being “National Opt Out Day“, we thought we’d take our camera down to the airport and see who and what passengers were indeed opting out of the scanners.

Meanwhile, a new national news survey has found that half of the Americans surveyed believe the airport security pat-downs go too far.  Although nearly two our of three polled support the new full-body scanning machines.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

nunya November 23, 2010 at 3:39 pm

I think the full body scans are just creepy.

This Japanese Airport Security skit made me laugh


Brian November 23, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Sure would be nice if someone with the bankroll and free time required for the challenge would go start recording down there to start the ball rolling to get that ordinance struck down. Seems like recently there was a court ruling that there’s no expectation of privacy for a conversation between a cop and a civilian (er, suspect)… so, there’s fairly recent similar precedent.


Brian November 23, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Looks like Anthony Graber is who I was thinking of. Links to and wikipedia to follow (shortened in hopes of not screwing up the recent comments layout)


Patty Jones November 23, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Hey Brian, I wasn’t trying to call you out… ;) But the tiny url’s do help, or make sure the url is not in the first sentence of the comment. Thanks!


jim grant November 23, 2010 at 7:30 pm

I will find out what the policy is tommorow , I am going to the Airport to photograph for upcoming articles !!!


Abby November 24, 2010 at 7:54 am

You will be harrased and or thrown out, if you are lucky.

Good luck!


OB Dude November 23, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Right on Jim!


tj November 24, 2010 at 8:36 am

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Ben Franklin

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Martin Luther King Jr.

“duh.” tj


jim grant November 24, 2010 at 8:43 am

I just called Airport Security: It is Legal to take photos in the Airport. If you show an intense intrest in the screening area you may draw attention from security.


Abby November 24, 2010 at 8:58 am

I would make sure you have that in writing, because that is not what the airports say.

Besides, the TSA can’t be trusted to know their own rules, let alone the airports.

I’ve talked to a few talking to other photographers, legal or not expect them to give you a hard time.


jim grant November 24, 2010 at 9:21 am

I talked to head of security and have his # in my phone…he gave it to me and said ” if you hav any issues call me” sure there can be confusion ….but if you are upfront you lessen the odds !
most times if you are looking for a fight you can find it….I dont want a fight just a good shot.


Sarah November 24, 2010 at 9:33 am

a good shot OF a fight! Admit it… :)


BillRayDrums November 24, 2010 at 1:25 pm

TSA Agents and their bosses are bad Americans. That’s all I got.


jim grant November 25, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I spoke with several of the TSA yesterday in the 3 hours I was at the Airport, they told me the SD Airport has been re-named by MANY MANY TSA employees…they call it


I was asked not to take photos one time….I asked the TSA screener why not…He could not answer me. So I asked him to send a supervisor over to me and he did…The Supervisor said yes you can take photos ” but ” please dont take them of the screens …..I said well either I can or can’t point my camera in the direction of the screening area…He said you can….I said are you going to look at my shots after i take them to ” MAKE SURE” I did not take a photo of the screen ?? He said No …I said well then how are you going to know if I broke the TSA rule ????
Funny thing the photographer for the SD UT John Gibbons told me he was asked 4 ( Four) times what he was doing and what was he photographing …..I dont get it…..


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