A brief civics lesson, courtesy of Vermont H.223 (2013-14)

I saw an article earlier on PopPhoto, “Vermont Bill Would Make Street Photography Illegal“. Initial reaction: wait, WHAT?! *cough* *splutter* I’m not much of a street photographer, but really? This is a dumb idea.

But it’s easy to hate on “stupid politicians” and most people will just stop at that point and call it done, so I did a little more digging. The short form bill in its entirety can be found on the Vermont Legislature’s website at www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/2014/bills/Intro/H-233.pdf (PDF document). There isn’t very much “entirety” to report:

Statement of purpose of bill as introduced: This bill proposes to make it illegal to take a photograph of a person without his or her consent, or to modify a photograph of a person without his or her consent, and to distribute it.

This Green Mountain Daily article is especially interesting for some of the commentary, the most insightful of which picks up on the “by request” nature of the H.223 (2013-14):

From time to time almost every legislator winds up introducing a bill “by request”. When you see that, particularly coupled with a short form filing, it’s a sign that nobody really expects or intends the bill to go anywhere.


Typically, we complain about politicians who embarrass their constituents. This appears to be a case of a constituent embarrassing their representative.The bill in question … was submitted “By Request.” This likely means that Rep. Nouvo has a constituent who feels strongly about an issue and is seeking redress in the General Assembly. It is one of the quirks of our representative government and the only issue is where does a representative place their “reality” filter in acquiescing to these requests.

An earlier example of a similar situation is described (emphasis added by myself):

Under the ‘Statement of purpose,’ the bill reads, “This bill proposes to prohibit public nudity on public land.”The bill was read the first time earlier this month and was referred to the Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, according to The Vermont Legislative Bill Tracking System.

Rodgers said the individual who requested the bill has been e-mailing all the legislators seeking support for it. He said he knows the person who requested the bill and submitted it on his behalf.

. . .

When bills are by request, the drafts people put them in short form. So, basically what it is it’s the basic idea, and it goes to committee, and if the committee is interested, they would take it up and develop it,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers said with the state’s many pressing issues, he does not see the public nudity bill taking on priority at the House.

Mostly, Rodgers said, he is taking ribbing for having his name attached to the nudity bill.

“I’m getting mostly jokes, people teasing me, ‘You’re against nudity?'” Rogers said. “Tons of my colleagues are teasing me. They’re having lots of fun with it. If all it does is provide people with a little bit of humor, at least it does some good.”

What this suggests to me is that some constituent of Rep. Nuovo has a personal beef with photographers or photography in general and has been contacting (perhaps even “hassling”) their elected representatives to “do something about it, there oughta be a law against this sort of thing”.

If I had to guess, I’d say that “something” is the introduction of this “by request” bill, with the sole intention of killing it stone dead after suitable debate on why it’s a completely stupid idea. Assuming it isn’t left to die in committee before ever finding its way to the floor, which would also demonstrate to the constituent that “no, your idea will not become a law any time soon, so get over yourself”. All done according to due democratic process on the public record, of course.

Also, just look at the thing. It’s a short form bill with almost no real substance to it. This might just represent the minimum effort needed to introduce a bill that the sponsor knows full well isn’t going anywhere.

And indeed, even as I wrote this, Pop Photo updated the article I linked to above with an official quote from Rep. Nuovo:

“This bill, H-233, is BY REQUEST it states it right on the bill, look it up under the Vermont Legislature. What that means is that it is not my bill, it is a bill REQUESTED by a constituent who really wanted it so it is a constituents bill, every Vermont Legislator knows this. I do not believe in it  but legislators do put in bills that are REQUESTED. This bill is not going to be taken up by the Legislature.  Rep. Betty Nuovo”

An interesting lesson in how our democracy works, and a reminder not to assume that a wrong-headed bill is the actual work of its sponsor.

Why laws like this are not needed.

Individuals are already protected from having their likeness used commercially without consent. They can sue and they will surely win. Using a photo to promote something is not OK unless the subject gave consent. Editorial and artistic uses are OK here (this is a very simplified overview by the way).

It’s not actually a legal requirement to get a model release from your subject, but it does protect everyone involved should there be a legal issue with the commercial usage of an image.

The other concern is stalkers with cameras harassing people. That’s what a restraining order is for, folks.

Unintended Consequences.

The obvious one is editorial photographs. A photojournalist would have to be very careful with such a law in place. And by “careful” I pretty much mean “hang up their camera and find a new line of work, or get used to being hauled into court”. Plenty of people get photographed for news purposes without consent and in many cases would be malicious enough to go after the shooter for embarrassing them.

So, consider this scene: I’m out for a walk with my wife one pleasant evening. She is beautiful, and so is the light as the sun sinks gently toward the horizon. My photographer instincts kick in and I pull my cellphone out of my pocket to make a quick posed portrait of her. With a few taps of the screen, I pull it up in Instagram, crop to a square and pick a filter which enhances the warm sunlight. Seconds later, it’s posted with a few hastags (#Kelli #sexy #beautiful #lovely).

Somewhere not far behind her, a complete stranger is walking toward us. My cellphone camera, focused on Kelli 5 feet in front of it, has everything from a few inches to infinity (and well beyond!) in focus, so the stranger is clearly identifiable, even on Instagram.

I just broke every aspect of the law as worded in H.223 (VT 2013-14): I photographed someone without their consent (inadvertently, but that doesn’t make a difference; they were still photographed). I modified the image (square crop, filter). Then I distributed it (Instagram).

All this is, thankfully, not an issue here, as clarified by Rep. Nuovo herself. This was, effectively, a “get over yourself, ya whiner” backed by due process.