August: Respect the rights of news photographers

2008 Columns

A picture, they say, is worth 1,000 words. The television and print photographers who take them play a vital role in keeping the public informed. It’s a job that requires much skill, and sometimes entails great risk.

News photographers in Wisconsin have been attacked, threatened, arrested, and had their cameras and film confiscated. They have been barred from meetings that were open to other members of the public. The hand held up to the camera is unfortunately a familiar image.

Recently, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and Wisconsin News Photographers Association jointly produced a Bill of Rights outlining where and under what circumstances state photographers are allowed. Some of this document is drawn from generally accepted national standards and some is based on Wisconsin law and court decisions.

The entire document can be found here, and here are a few highlights.

News photographers in Wisconsin have the same rights of access as other citizens; if the general public can photograph or videotape a location or event, the media can too. And, in their role as “surrogates of the public,” members of the media are sometimes afforded special accommodation, such as access to crime and accident scenes.

  • The state’s open meetings law expressly requires all public bodies to “make a reasonable effort to accommodate any person desiring to record, film or photograph the meeting,” so long as this does not interfere with the meeting.
  • Photographers may freely photograph activity that occurs within public areas, including streets, sidewalks, beaches, parks, town squares, and bus and train stations. Photography in federal buildings and at airports is subject to restrictions.
  • Photographers may not take photographs of private property without permission, unless it is plainly visible from public property, like a street or sidewalk. It is not proper to use cameras to peer into places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, no matter where the cameras are based.
  • Photos are generally allowed in restaurants, business offices, shopping malls and movie theater lobbies, so long as no one objects. But permission should be obtained before taking photographs in these areas for publication or broadcast.
  • Photography of students in public schools, K-12, is subject to restrictions, such as parental permission; contact the individual school principal. Photography at school sporting events or performances is permitted.
  • Federal courts in Wisconsin do not permit cameras or recording equipment. Under Supreme Court Rule Chapter 61, state courts generally allow photography with the judge’s permission, but it should be as unobtrusive as possible. Jurors may not be photographed, and judges may impose other restrictions. See guidelines here.
  • Photographs may be taken within medical facilities only with permission. Signed releases should be obtained from any photographed persons, even if they appear only in the background.
  • Permission is needed to take photographs within penal institutions, although state administrative rules (DOC Chapter 309 for adults and Chapter 379 for juveniles) encourage prison officials to accommodate media access.
  • Museums may prohibit photographs of certain artworks and exhibits, or impose other restrictions, such as a ban on flash photography.

In addition to these rules, the Wisconsin Photographers Bill of Rights gives some particular guidance to news photographers. It advises them to carry media credentials and a government-issued photo ID at all times; to never trespass on private property; to always politely request access and obey any restrictions; to follow orders from police officers or security officials; to never take anything from a crime or accident scene (except pictures); and never willingly surrender cameras, video discs or tape recordings to anyone.

It is hoped that police and fire departments and other public offices throughout Wisconsin will download and post this Bill of Rights.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the group’s president.