Posted on 4 Comments

unlawful photography

In Tennessee, you can end up with a Class A misdemeanor for taking a photograph. Now if you disseminated to others it becomes a Class E felony. So, if you take someone’s picture in TN and put it on Flickr you could end up spending one to six years in prison and be fined up to $3000.

Class E felony
Not less than one (1) year nor more than six (6) years in prison. In addition, the jury may assess a fine not to exceed three thousand dollars ($3,000), unless otherwise provided by statute
Class A misdemeanor
not greater than eleven (11) months twenty-nine (29) days in jail or a fine not to exceed two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500), or both, unless otherwise provided by statute


According to of the Tennessee Code Title 39, Chapter 13, Part 6 "It is an offense for a person to knowingly photograph, or cause to be photographed an individual, when the individual is in a place where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, without the prior effective consent of the individual…" This law seems ripe for abuse. I am no lawyer but I find it difficult to accept language like "Would offend or embarrass an ordinary person if such person appeared in the photograph" as definitive. Some people are so shy you could take a picture of the back of their head and they would be embarassed. You could photograph me losing my swimsuit on a dive at the pool and I would not take offense. Two extremes and the law should apply to neither.

What happens if this law is enacted on a person?

(c) All photographs taken in violation of this section shall be confiscated and, after their use as evidence, destroyed. [Source]

I suppose if you were an elected official, or crooked law enforcement agent, and someone snapped a less than complimentary picture of you in a public place, you could enact the law and have the evidence destroyed.

I also suppose that if my daughter didn’t like her picture on Flickr, she could have her mother arrested and the picture would be destroyed.

Now, we are on camera all the time! Your bank ATM has a camera that films you picking your nose. Certainly you could expect privacy in your monetary transactions but often this camera is clearly broadcast to a television visible to patrons inside the bank. Retail store security cameras abound. I bet you are unknowingly on hundreds of cameras just walking through the mall. Our lives will become even more filmed as time goes on.

Allow me to share a not too distance future. Eventually cameras will become so small and cheap that we will have them available as "dots" on a strip of paper not unlike candy buttons. Once peeled from the paper strip the camera’s adhesive backing could be stuck anywhere..a tree, a lightpost, a backpack. The camera will seek out a nearby wireless network at communicate its network ip address to your home server from which you can start monitoring the camera. Children will be able to go to a friend’s house to play and the parents will be able to check in on their child. Video art will change. Privacy will be limited to wireless proof, privacy rooms where signals are blocked, negated, or otherwise cannot get out. Yes, the abuse potential will be huge but the opportunities such technology will create will far outweight the abuse.

Our paradigm of privacy needs to change. We should not give up our right to privacy but we should not be uptight about having our picture made when we are in public. Instead of trying to create privacy in public or define public spaces as "not really public" we should change our attitudes and accept that when we leave our houses, we will be on film like it or not. We should change ourselves and make sure we are behaving as we should in public instead of crying foul and declaring that your inappropiate behavior should not have been able to be seen on film.

I had to lookup "unlawful photography" after reading about a peeping tom arrested in TN who "hid a camera inside a binder and targeted women." When I was a teenager, I had this really cool camera lense that took picture at a 90 degree angle to the actual camera. I could be on a balcony and look like I was taking a picture of the ocean while I was really taking a picture of the bikini babe sunning at the pool below. (Yes, I thought it but never had the guts to try it. I was certain they would see the mirror.) I suppose my lense could have landed me in prison! I was too embarassed to photograph people so all my pictures before the age of 20 or so are of buildings and scenes with no people. Maybe our peeping tom was took embarassed to openingly point a camera at people in a public place but really wanted to capture a sample of life at the mall, er, but only the pretty women. Yes, I doubt his innocence. See some interesting comments at the Nashville Scene.

4 thoughts on “unlawful photography

  1. That’s an interesting post, because I was thinking just along those same lines as I was posting my old World’s Fair pictures.

    I wondered about all the people in the background of those photos, how I could obviously never hope to receive the slightest permission of any of them to post the pictures. Not only were they taken 25 years ago, they were all in a public place. But it still makes you wonder.

    Interestingly, neither your examples of “back of the head” vs. “trunks off in the pool” pass the reasonable expectation of privacy rule unless the locations were within ones own house (or fenced yard). To me, once you step outside your front door and are visible from the street you are “in public” and should have no real expectation of privacy from being photographed – other than those rules applying to common politeness. It would be rude for a 15-yr-old kid to sit out on his front lawn and take pictures of his hot teenage neighbor girl whenever she walks out the door, but it shouldn’t be illegal. There are rules in society that should be understood as common courtesy but not necessarily legally protected. Because then you have to worry about proving extenuating circumstances in a court of law, etc. etc.

    What a headache.

  2. Unless they are not giving all the information on the peeping tom, he wasn’t doing anything other than taking pictures of people in a public place. All he did was conceal his camera. Now, maybe he was doing something more that the article doesn’t convey such as trying to take pictures up skirts or something. Don’t take this comment to mean I am defending him. I am only nothing that the way the article is written, he wasn’t doing anything other than taking pictures in a public place.

    Like Barry, I think people are beginning to confuse “private” with “rules of decency” and good judgment. It’s like when reports used to look the other way at the President’s indescretions (Kennedy) vs making them take presidence over more important national issues (Clinton). The press operated on different “rules of decency.”

  3. I disagree with the angle you are going with this. First, the law specifically states “in a place where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy” A mall, a fair or any other public venue does not carry such “expectations” Also, this first line of this story says we was using his concealed camera to “look up the skirt and dresses of woman.” This is not somebody just “taking snapshots” at the mall, or even somebody using a “blind” to take “unassuming” photos at the mall. There are details missing here. Where was this binder placed (and how) to acquire such photos since it would require the “target” to stroll directly over it for it to work as stated. Again not enough information.

    The law is meant to protect against things like “security cameras” being installed in dressing rooms, bathrooms, etc. Places where expectations of privacy are reasonable. So no you would not be able to grab a shot of Harold Ford Jr. stripped down to his skivvies in the Men’s Wearhouse while trying on a new suit, but certainly a photo of him at a “Playboy Party” or chatting with some girl urging him on (“Harold… Call Me”) then it is fair game.

  4. “first line of this story says we was using his concealed camera to “look up the skirt and dresses of woman.” ”

    Who reads the first line?

    Well that was embarassing. The way their little skyscraper ad rendered the text I never read the first line. I started with “Police raided the apartment of Jesse…” That first line changes the context a bunch.

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