Right to photograph in public/private forums
Q: We have been told by a small-community postmaster, and a higher-up in a regional office, that we cannot photograph the inside of the tiny lobby for a story about small community life. They say it is “our policy” but will cite no specific law. We’ve also asked for access behind the window to shoot a picture of a clerk helping a customer. Same answer. Any legal prohibition here? What would be the result if we push the point and photograph in the lobby anyway?
A: Your right to take photographs (or engage in other activities protected by the First Amendment) generally depends on whether the location in question can be characterized as a “public forum.” Under federal court interpretation of the First Amendment, post offices generally are not considered to be public forums. See, e.g., United States v. Kokinda, 497 U.S. 720 (1990); Burrus v. Vegliante, 336 F.3d 82, 91 (2d Cir. 2003).
California courts have occasionally construed the California Constitution as applying more broadly, but there is no published California case law extending constitutional protection to photography or other newsgathering activities inside a post office.On the other hand, at least the front portion of the post office is apparently open to the public. There is nothing to prevent you from entering and taking pictures. Your presence is not a trespass. I am not aware of any statute or regulation prohibiting the taking of photographs in the public areas of post offices (although I have not looked for such provisions so I cannot rule them out either). Once you have taken the pictures, attempting to prevent their publication would be a prior restraint, which is presumptively unconstitutional.