Is It Illegal To Take Pictures of Federal Buildings?

The Case of Musumeci v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security

The US Supreme Courthouse

Eric Thayer / Getty Images 

It is not illegal to take pictures of federal buildings such as courthouses. A court settlement reached in 2010 affirmed the right of citizens to shoot still images and video footage of federal buildings.

But do keep in mind that photographing federal buildings may arouse the suspicions of those around you, particularly federal agents, in the post-9/11 era.

The Musumeci Case 

On November 9, 2009, Libertarian activist Antonio Musumeci was arrested while using his hand-held video camera to record a protestor in a public plaza outside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Federal Courthouse in Manhattan. Musumeci, a 29-year-old resident of Edgewater, N.J., and member of the Manhattan Libertarian Party was recording an interview in front of the courthouse steps with Julian Heicklen, a libertarian activist who was advocating for jury nullification. As they were recording, Musumeci and Heickle were confronted by a federal inspector from the Department of Homeland Security, who arrested Heicklen. Musumeci stepped backward and recorded the arrest. The inspector then arrested Musumeci for violating a federal regulation governing photography. During his arrest, Musumeci was grabbed by his arms and forced to the pavement as the video card from his camera was confiscated. After being arrested, Musumeci was detained for about 20 minutes and issued a ticket for violating the photography regulation. That charge was later dismissed. A week later, Musumeci was harassed and threatened with arrest after trying again to record Heicklen at the federal courthouse.

Musumeci sued the Department of Homeland Security, which has oversight of Protective Service agents who guard federal buildings. In October 2010, he and the public ultimately won and the legality of photographing federal buildings was upheld.

In the case, a judge signed a settlement where the government agreed that no federal statutes or regulations bar the public from taking pictures of the exterior of federal buildings.

The settlement also outlined an agreement where the agency responsible for all government buildings (the Federal Protective Service) had to issue a directive to all of its members about photographers' rights.

The Rules

The federal regulations on the topic are lengthy but concisely address the issue of photographing federal buildings. The guidelines read:

"Except where security regulations, rules, orders, or directives apply or a Federal court order or rule prohibits it, persons entering in or on Federal property may take photographs of -
(a) Space occupied by a tenant agency for non-commercial purposes only with the permission of the occupying agency concerned;
(b) Space occupied by a tenant agency for commercial purposes only with written permission of an authorized official of the occupying agency concerned; and
(c) Building entrances, lobbies, foyers, corridors, or auditoriums for news purposes."

Clearly, Musumeci, who was shooting video footage in a public commons outside the federal courthouse, was in the right and federal agents were in the wrong. 

Reasonable Suspicion

As in any case of law enforcement, however, the rules do allow for an officer to investigate a person if there is "reasonable suspicion or probable cause" of illegal activity. This could result in brief detainment or a pat down. And if further suspicion is warranted an arrest could be made.

Government Clarifies

As part of Musumeci's settlement with the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Protective Service said it would remind its officers of the "public's general right to photograph the exterior of federal courthouses from publicly accessible spaces."

It would also restate that "there are currently no general security regulations prohibiting exterior photography by individuals from publicly accessible spaces, absent a written local rule, regulation or order."

Michael Keegan, the chief of public and legislative affairs for the Federal Protective Service, told the media in a statement that the settlement between the government and Musumeci "clarifies that protecting public safety is fully compatible with the need to grant public access to federal facilities, including photography of the exterior of federal buildings."

Though the need for heightened security around federal buildings is understandable, it is clear from the guidelines that the government cannot arrest people simply for taking pictures on public property.

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Your Citation
Murse, Tom. "Is It Illegal To Take Pictures of Federal Buildings?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 2, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, July 2). Is It Illegal To Take Pictures of Federal Buildings? Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "Is It Illegal To Take Pictures of Federal Buildings?" ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).