Homeland Security officers detained a photographer for six hours last week after he refused to explain why he was shooting video of the federal building at 26 Federal Plaza.
Officers asked Randall Thomas, a 43-year-old professional photographer, why he was panning up and down the building with his handheld video camera, to which he responded “none of your business,” before responding a second time with profanity. He was asked to give up the camera and memory card, and detained in a holding cell six hours at the Downtown location as officers obtained search warrants for the devices. He was accused of videotaping security countermeasures, according to the Dept. of Homeland Security, and received three tickets—for disorderly conduct, failure to comply with directions and impeding duties of a federal officer.
“I’m a bit distraught that they would do that, that they would take it as far as they did,” said Thomas, who said he was operating within his First Amendment rights. He said he was “not photographing anything in particular,” having been out that day to promote his wedding photography.
Thomas said authorities have stopped him before while he is working, though when he explains that he understands his rights, they often leave him alone. He was previously arrested for taking a still photograph of the same building, though he has yet to hear the outcome of his “not guilty” plea.
“There are certain things that the press cannot do when it comes to national security, and filming federal buildings is one of them,” said Luis Martinez, a spokesperson for the Dept. of Homeland Security. While federally outlined rules about permission and usage can be vague, Martinez likened the situation to photographing Port Authority property. He said the organization often posts signs outside the tunnels under their control that prohibit photography, with the threat of fines and arrest clearly visible.
The investigation is still ongoing, Martinez said. When Thomas left at 9 p.m. that night, his equipment was not returned to him.
— Jared T. Miller