Fairfax Photo Fees Threaten First Amendment Rights, Press Photographers Say

County says fees present no restrictions on newsgathering.
Fairfax Photo Fees Threaten First Amendment Rights, Press Photographers Say
Colvin Run Mill. Photograph from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce's Flickr.

Fairfax County’s fees for professional photographers who use its parks “create an unnecessary and burdensome distinction between amateur and professional photographers,” the National Press Photographers Association told the county in a letter Wednesday. The fees could impose restrictions on First Amendment rights, they warn.

The county requires a $100 fee for photographers who do commercial shoots in its parks, which some photographers believe hits family photography unfairly. The county says it’s a matter of managing park resources: Weddings and other photo shoots are impeding the visiting experience for others at parks like Green Spring Gardens and Colvin Run Mill.

The letter is being sent on behalf of 13 media groups, including the Associated Press Media Editors and the White House News Photographers Association. They say Fairfax’s rules are “overly broad and vague” and the permitting process “creates a potential prior restraint on photography of all types.”

The correct question for Fairfax to ask, NPPA general counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher writes, “is whether the photography creates any unusual impact on the land.” It continues:

If the activity presents no more impact on the land than that of the general public, then it should be exempt from permit and fee requirements. A permit should only be required if the photography takes place at locations where members of the public are not allowed, or if the photography substantially impedes public access to areas where the public is normally allowed—and then only when the photography is clearly commercial in nature. If the primary purpose is to inform the public, then no permit or fee should be required—and unless the photography is clearly commercial, the default is that it should be considered informational.

Reached by e-mail, Fairfax County Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pedersen said there exist “no restrictions on newsgathering in our parks.” The parks “ask as a courtesy that reporters, news crews and photographers let us know if they are working in our parks and the Public Information Office acts as a clearinghouse for all media inquiries related to our agency and facilities.” Pedersen said she will forward NPPA’s letter “for inclusion in the record and consideration by decision makers.” FCPA heard objections to the permit fees last month. Pedersen told Washingtonian at the time the agency was open to considering a change to the fee structure.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously the news editor and lead media reporter for the Poynter Institute, arts editor for the now completely vanished TBD.com, and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.