Responding to public pressure and a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York City today issued rules that respect the constitutional right to photograph and film on sidewalks and other public places.

Under the new rules, which the City negotiated with the NYCLU, anyone with a handheld camera or a tripod is free to film on city sidewalks for as long as they please without a permit so long as they don’t establish a physical perimeter around or direct passersby away from more than half of a sidewalk, according to rules released by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcast. The rules expressly state that photographers and filmmakers who are simply standing on City sidewalks with cameras and tripods need no permit and no insurance. The rules also expressly state that no permit is required for photography and filming of parades, rallies, protests and demonstrations

In May 2007, MOFTB proposed rules that would have required permits and $1 million of insurance for anyone who spent 30 minutes photographing or filming in a single location. The NYCLU and scores of filmmakers and photographers opposed the proposal, which would have restricted a wide range of casual photography and filmmaking. As a result of the outcry, MOFTB rescinded the proposal in August and worked with the NYCLU to draft the rules issued today.

“We are glad the City stepped up and agreed to issue rules that respect New Yorkers’ First Amendment rights,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “Now the NYPD needs to get its act together and stop hassling photographers and filmmakers.”

The NYPD has a history of harassing photographers and violating their First Amendment rights, and the NYCLU has filed two lawsuits recently in an attempt to force the Department to adopt policies and trainings so that officers will understand and respect the constitutionally-protected rights of photographers and filmmakers.

Still photographers and filmmakers whose work does not require a permit but are afraid of police harassment may apply for a free “optional permit,” an official document they can present if stopped and questioned by a police officer that explains they are engaged in legal activity. The optional permit does not require insurance.

NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn worked with MOFTB to write the rules, and pushed for the inclusion of an optional permit in response to photographer and filmmaker requests for one.

“The issuance of these new rules provides an important opportunity for the NYPD to train its officers to understand and respect the First Amendment rights of photographers,”Dunn said. “Photography and filmmaking has a long and distinguished history in New York City, and the NYPD needs to recognize that this activity is not a threat to public safety.”

New York City previously had no written rules governing the issuance of film and photo permits, which resulted in certain photographers and filmmakers being denied the right to take photos and make films. The City agreed to adopt written rules and to narrow its permit scheme after the NYCLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging the MOFTB’s permit practices.

Stay informed

The New York Civil Liberties Union is a state affiliate of the ACLU

Learn more about ACLU National