I spent a couple of days in Charlotte last week. I had better rephrase that. I spent a couple of days visiting Charlotte, North Carolina, last week. The fall colours seemed more striking than those in Florida. Or maybe it was just my imagination.
So I was walking along W 4th Street in downtown Charlotte minding my own business. I had my camera bag slung from my shoulder and my Canon 40D hanging from my neck read to be brought up to my eye at a moment’s notice if I happened to see something worth capturing.
The building to my right caught my interest. It was a two-storey building that dated from the late 19th century or early 20th century at a guess. It was one of the few old buildings to have survived Charlotte’s renaissance in the 1970s to become the second largest financial centre in the United States. Many fine old buildings were torn down to make way for the towers of concrete, steel and glass, the cathedrals dedicated to the worship of Mammon.
This surviving old building had a colonnade façade, with large Georgian-style windows in between the rectangular columns. The repeated pattern had obvious photographic possibilities.
I walked on and wondered what the building’s function was. As I approached the gated entrance with a security booth, I noticed a sign that said “US Government Property.”
I had just passed by the security booth when a voice called out, “Excuse me, sir!”
I stopped and turned in the direction of the voice and saw a burly African-American man dressed in a blue blazer, shirt and tie, and grey slacks.
“What are you doing?” the man asked.
“Walking along this street,” I replied.
“What’s with the camera?” he enquired.
With an exasperated look, I said “Has it come to the point where a person with a camera can no longer walk along a street without being stopped.”
“This a federal court building,” he said.
That explanation may have struck a chord with an American but it was lost on me.
“What are you doing?” he said for the second time.
“I am just walking around looking for things to photograph. I was quite taken by this building but when I saw it was US Government Property, I thought it was probably a good idea not to take a photograph.”
“Could I see some photo ID?”
“You know you have no right to ask that. I am on a public street.”
The man smiled benignly but the smile did not mask a look of insistence.
I reached inside my jacket pocket for my wallet and opened it up.
“I tell you what,” I said. “You can have my business card instead. Perhaps you would like to buy a couple of my photographs.”
He studied my card, the one that appears at the top right-hand side of this page.
“Okay, Mr Palmer. Have a nice day.”
“I will try,” I said laconically and walked away. By this time something had caught my eye on the other side of the road and I crossed to take the shot.
Some hours later back at my hotel, I told my wife about the incident. She said that photographing outside federal court buildings was prohibited. At least it was up until October 2010 when, following a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the federal government recognized the public’s right to take photographs and record videos in public spaces outside federal courthouses throughout the nation.
The ruling also applies to all federal buildings throughout the nation.
Obviously, it takes longer than 12 months for news of legal rulings to get from Brooklyn to Charlotte.
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