NYCLU Settlement Ends Restriction on Photography Outside Federal Courthouses

October 18, 2010 —  In settling a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the federal government today recognized the public’s right to take photographs and record videos in public spaces outside federal courthouses throughout the nation.

The settlement comes after the NYCLU sued the federal government in April on behalf of a Libertarian activist who was unlawfully arrested by federal officers after exercising his First Amendment right to record digital video outside of a federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan.

“This settlement secures the public’s First Amendment right to use cameras in public spaces without being harassed,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “While we understand the need for heightened security near federal buildings, any rule that results in the arrest of people for exercising their First Amendment rights is clearly unconstitutional. We’re pleased the federal government finally recognizes this fact.”

Plaintiff Antonio Musumeci was arrested on Nov. 9, 2009 after using a hand-held camera to record a protestor in a public plaza outside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Federal Courthouse in Manhattan.

During the arrest, federal officers forced Musumeci to the pavement and confiscated video from his camera. Musumeci, a software developer for an investment bank, was detained for about 20 minutes and issued a ticket for violating a federal regulation. That charge was later dismissed.

On two subsequent occasions, federal officers threatened Musumeci with arrest after trying to record protests at the courthouse.

“The courthouse plaza is public property paid for by taxpayers, and the public should not be prohibited from using video cameras there. Now people now can freely express their First Amendment right there without being harassed and arrested by federal officers,” said Musumeci, a resident of Edgewater, N.J.

In the settlement approved today by a federal judge in Manhattan, the federal government acknowledges that there are no federal laws or regulations that prohibit photography outside federal courthouses. It agreed to provide federal officers written instructions emphasizing the public’s right to photograph and record outside federal courthouses. The settlement has even broader implications, though.

“Not only will this settlement end harassment of photographers outside federal courthouses, it will free people to photograph and film outside of all federal buildings,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, lead counsel in the case. “The regulation at issue in this case applies to all federal buildings, not only courthouses, so this settlement should extend to photography near all federal buildings nationwide.