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Photographers Rights - obstruction, trespass, breach of the peace etc
A brief guide for street photographers.
(©urban75, updated December 2009)
Under UK law, it's a criminal offence to obstruct the free passage on the highway and this includes footways, bike paths and roads.
If you're standing on a thoroughfare to grab a photograph and you're not impeding the movement of traffic or people to any degree, then you're absolutely within the law. Sadly, some protest photographers will be familiar with the Old Bill tactic of claiming that they're causing an obstruction in often the most frivolous of circumstances.
It may be a pain, but it's usually best to move yo' ass when asked as it's not uncommon for innocent photographers to be arrested for obstruction at demos - or even get their collars felt for supposedly obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty.
Taking photographs is unlikely to amount to a 'breach of the peace' or be seen as 'conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace', but if you're stuck in the thick of a heated demo or street riot, you'll have to be careful that the police don't confuse you with the participants and treat you accordingly.
If you've a photojournalist card, wear it on a lanyard so you can easily show it to the police if challenged, but if you're a freelancer you might find it harder to convince the cops that you're not one of the rampaging hordes.
The best advice is to keep your eyes open and to speedily back off when the police start to charge your way.
Note that there is no law preventing you taking photographs of the police at demos, unless there are any overriding security/law enforcement concerns.
Breach of the Peace
Another legal catch-all sometimes employed by the police against photographers refusing to leave a scene when doing their job is, "conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace."
We can't think of any successful prosecutions of press photographers under this law, but it has certainly been used on occasion Police sued over stolen cameras.
Some legal precedents:
In R v Howell  3 All ER 383, Watkins LJ said "... we cannot accept that there can be breach of the peace unless here has been an act done or threatened to be done which actually harms a person or in his presence his property or is likely to cause such harm or which puts someone in fear of such harm being done." while in DPP v Percy  3 All ER 124, the court clarified that conduct could be breach of the peace if there was a real risk that it would elicit violence from a third party.
This could apply to a photographer hassling people in such a manner that he/she might elicit a violent response from those around them, although we'd suggest that this kind of offence would be extremely rare. Our advice would be to retire at a rate of knots when threatened with an arrest under breach of the peace.
If you start stomping over private property taking photos without permission, you're committing a trespass, and the same applies to anyone who "interferes" with the property.
The "interference" law is a bit of a daft one and can be used for something as trivial as scrambling up a bit of wall to take a photo over the top or even resting your camera on a fence.
If you've been given access to property on the condition that your camera stays firmly in your bag, the second you start snapping you're no longer entitled to be on the land and are thus guilty of trespass (Scottish law differs in this regard).
Landowners, occupiers, security guards and bouncers etc are allowed to use 'reasonable force' to prevent a trespasser entering their property and they can also use reasonable force to eject a trespasser who is refusing to leave their land, but the law is very strict about what constitutes reasonable force.
This means that almost any violent attack would be unreasonable under the law, as would threatening someone with a knife, club, Ninja sword, Nunchaku, AK47, thermo-nuclear device or any other weapon.
Note: Property owners or their employees and security staff have no right whatsoever to confiscate or damage a photographer's camera or insist that images are deleted.
You are welcome to discuss the issues on our bulletin boards Photographers rights in the UK: discussion. Please note that you will have to register to post comments (it is free).
Also: Photographing protests in the UK - advice on backing up images, streaming video and keeping your photos safe
Next: Deleting images
Note: This article attempts to be a brief educational guide to the sometimes-complex matter of your rights as a photographer. It is not legal advice and we recommend seeking out proper legal advice if you encounter problems or contributing to our bulletin boards. Some material in this article has been sourced from the UK Photographers Rights website.
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