Ansel Adams Act Seeks to Remove All Photo Restrictions in Public Places

A young photographer lines up her shot at Yosemite National Park. Peter Alfred Hess [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Everyone is taking pictures these days. Most people simply snap away with a smartphone without giving it a second thought. But a new bill that was submitted to a congressional committee Jan. 2 has shed light on the growing practice of restricting photography.

In some places run by government organizations, it's against the law to take pictures. For example, you can get a fine and even a jail sentence if you use a photography drone in U.S. national parks. Similar restrictions have been put in place for photographing certain government buildings and even taking pictures of government employees, including the police.

In some public places, cameras are not outlawed, but photographers must pay fees and/or get special permits if they want to shoot.

The legislation basics

A new bill, dubbed the Ansel Adams Act, after the famous American landscape photographer, seeks to reverse this trend. The bill's author, Texas Republican congressman Steve Stockman, has said that he thinks photography is an important aspect of free speech and that these new restrictions violate the First Amendment.

"Still and motion photographs are speech. It is contrary to the public policy of the United States to prohibit or restrict photography in public spaces, whether for private, news media, or commercial use."

You can read a full copy of Stockman's bill here.

Stockman defines photography as "any form or method of capturing and recording or transmitting still or moving images." That would include things like using drones to take videos in national parks.

If it passes, the act would make it easy to take photos in any public place, but it probably won't result in a photography free-for-all. Government organizations will still be able to restrict photography in certain places if they first get a court order. To do this, they would need to prove that photography in that particular place could harm security or privacy.

Going back to the example of the drone ban in national parks, the restrictions could be quickly reinstated if the Ansel Adams Act passes. The National Park Service would have to go to a judge and prove that drones would present a danger to conservation efforts and to park visitors. However, the NPS, or any other government group, would have a harder time getting a court order to bar people from traditional handheld photography.

Who would be affected?

Actually, the bill will affect the press more than casual snapshot takers. News photographers, and perhaps social activists, will have a legal foothold if law enforcement personnel try to limit their ability to take pictures and videos of a major event, such as the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Ansel Adams Act, if passed, will be a federal law that only affects federal land, employees and property. Municipalities and states will be able to enact different laws. That said, the act would set a precedent that would make it possible for photographers to fight local and state restrictions in federal courts, though such a process would take a lot of time and money.

Making photography 'free speech'

News of the bill has brought about a fair bit of excitement amongst photo and video enthusiasts. If passed, it would officially include photography and videography as part of "free speech." Though the idea of freedom for image-makers has been implied often in the past, it has never really been included explicitly in a law in such a broad sense.

What are some of the restrictions that the bill will attempt to address? The U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior (DOI) both created regulations that initially said that anyone would need a permit to photograph in a wilderness area. After an outcry, the Forest Service "clarified," saying that only commercial photography shoots would require a permit.

The DOI, which has a similar permit policy, said that its restrictions would probably not affect any casual photographers: "We anticipate that most still photographers will not fall into these categories and will not need a permit to take photographs on lands managed by DOI agencies."

The Ansel Adams Act is still a long way from becoming law. Even if it dies before reaching the House of Representatives, it has brought attention to photographers' rights and, perhaps, inspired federal agencies to clarify their rules about taking snapshots.