by Leo Castaneda | inewsource

Lawyers say 10 feet; police officers say 21 feet. The 11 feet in between can be the difference between a handcuffed reporter and a First Amendment lawsuit.

Law enforcement, lawyers, media, law students and other members of the public debated just how close a photographer can be to a crime scene Tuesday night. And that means anyone from a credentialed member of a news organization to someone walking by with a smartphone.

Every time someone takes out a cellphone camera in public, they are taking certain legal risks, which were discussed during “The Right to Photograph & Record in Public” panel hosted by the California Western School of Law.

Panelists agreed that anyone can photograph anyone, including police officers, in public, except for a few, narrow exceptions. While not everyone agreed on how common it is for photographers to be unduly restricted from access, everyone agreed the best way to deal with those situations was to remain calm.

National City Police Chief Manuel Rodriguez said officers, who are usually trained to clear an area 21 feet around the scene, are not often taught how to handle the media. That means they will focus on potential threats to their safety or on doing their job rather than media access.

When it comes to a disagreement between an officer and a member of the media, “The guy with the gun is usually going to win,” Rodriguez said.

American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director David Loy agreed that personal safety was a valid concern for officers when they ask individuals to stop recording. He said, for example, individuals can use cellphones to conceal a taser or pepper spray.

Loy said a U.S. Courts of Appeals case, Glik v. Cunniffe, which dealt with a bystander who was arrested for filming police officers making an arrest, set a precedent for individuals legally recording officers from 10 feet away.

Shawn Moran, who represents the Border Patrol agents’ union, took the broadest definition of the First Amendment right to film or photograph. He expressed skepticism about his agency’s notorious restrictions on the media, including filming in and around the border region.

“Customs and Border Protection has a legacy of secrecy,” Moran said.

He said that as long as members of the media do not directly interfere with his duties, he has no problem with them recording or photographing any of his or the CBP’s activities. But he said he is opposed to agents wearing cameras themselves, saying the footage could be used by the agency to punish minor violations such as an officer leaving his position to get lunch.

Rodriguez predicted that cameras on officers, like the ones the San Diego Police Department is beginning to use, will eventually become the norm for police officers everywhere.

While all three legal and law enforcement panelists seemed to indicate they support access to members of the media and the public to record in public areas, ABC10 News Chief Photographer Eric Gaylord said that was not always how it played out in the field.

He told the story of one of ABC10’s photographers having to cross a freeway on foot to get a photo of a car accident from an area that was restricted to media but open to the public.

In the end, he said, photographers were going to try to get the shots they needed one way or another.

The National Press Photographers Association offers more information on access issues on its advocacy page.

To contact the newsroom, email To contact a specific reporter, see our Staff page. Visit our Byline Policy for more information.