Update on my experience at the courthouse

September 16th, 2010
by Josh Zytkiewicz

If you haven’t read it check out my previous post on my experience at the Robert W. Kastenmeier United States Courthouse.

About a week after that post I sent out letters to Senator Kohl and Senator Feingold, and Representative Baldwin.  I also sent letters to Judge Crabb, Judge Shabaz, and Magistrate Judge Crocker of the Western District of Wisconsin.  I also sent a letter to Representative Norton of Washington, D.C.  because she has held congressional hearings on photographer harassment.  So far I have received three replies.

In the letter I detailed my experience at the courthouse on October 7th in much the same way as I blogged about it, though without accompanying pictures.  At the end of the letter I added four questions.

First, why was I even approached? Everything I saw and photographed that day is visible from the public sidewalk that surrounds the courthouse. Is it the policy of the federal government, this particular building, or an overzealous guard to approach every photographer?

Second, why is a federal employee telling me I cannot take pictures of the building because of “security procedures”? The only federal laws that I know of that actually prohibit photography relate to classified items on military bases and facilities that have nuclear material under the control of the US Department of Energy. Even the GSA’s own rules which are posted in the lobby of the courthouse Title 41 CFR 102-74.420 doesn’t prohibit photography but requires the permission of whichever federal agency is concerned. Also 41 CFR 102-74.420 only apply to those persons “in or on Federal property”.

Third, why was I threatened at the end of our conversation? And I do consider it a threat when I’m told the police will be called because I’m doing something that someone doesn’t like. If I was breaking a law why wasn’t I held, prevented from leaving until the police arrived?

Fourth, is the Robert W. Kastenmeier United States Courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin a more sensitive and potentially threatened location than the Wisconsin Capitol building? After all I was allowed to move freely throughout the Capitol, but was stopped and questioned merely for being outside of the courthouse.

As of today I have received three responses.

First reply

The first was from Senator Kohl.

SenatorKohlClick the picture to see it full size.  He really doesn’t say much, just that he has

…taken the liberty of forwarding your concerns… 

Second Reply

A few days after that I received an envelope from the Judges Chambers at the courthouse.  Unfortunately it was stamped RECEIVED WITHOUT CONTENTS.

JudgesChambersEmpty Since I didn’t know who actually sent me the letter I sent a letter back to the return address, with a copy of the envelope, asking them to resend.  They did and I received this two page letter from Judge Crabb.

JudgeCrabb1JudgeCrabb2 Again, click the image to see it full size.

She brings up a few points.  I agree that courthouses can be “volatile”.  Though I never wanted to, attempted to, or mentioned entering the building at anytime, so I’m not sure why she weapons screening. 

The first sentence of her third paragraph starts

Photographing the building is perfectly acceptable

which is true.  And I’ll be sure to carry a copy of this letter with me if I ever take pictures near the courthouse again.  It certainly refutes what the guard said about not taking pictures of the building because of “security procedures”.

However, the rest of the paragraph is not so nice.

,but you or anyone else who takes pictures of the building can expect to be asked politely by a court security officer about what you are doing.  This is an unfortunate result of greater public safety concerns since 9/11, concerns that have only intensified since the recent discovery of at least two plots to blow up federal courthouses.

First, “politely”?  That guard was not polite.  Polite would be “Excuse me.”  Not “Hey, hey, hey”.  Polite would be introducing yourself, stating your name and position, instead of just assuming I’m going to do what you say because you’re in a uniform.  Perhaps stating the reason you’re approaching me, instead of beginning an immediate interrogation.  And a polite person definitely doesn’t threaten.

Apparently Judge Crabb believes that while taking pictures of the courthouse is “perfectly acceptable” it is also suspicious and grounds for questioning.  The Judge seems to be unaware that terrorists (real ones, not movie ones) don’t use photography.  The 9/11 terrorists did not take pictures.  Neither did Timothy McVeigh when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building.

And in her third paragraph she compares my experience to her experience at an airport.  I just don’t buy that analogy.  Airports and airplanes are private property.  While they are open to the public the owners are free to set any requirements they wish.  An airline could require you to do the Hokey Pokey before you board their plane and it would be perfectly legal.  I was on a public sidewalk.

Third Reply

The final reply I received so far was from Representative Baldwin.

 RepBaldwin BaldwinConner

She has faxed my letter to the acting administrator of the Government Services Administration and asked him to:

…address Mr. Zytkiewicz’s four main concerns as outlined on page three of his letter.

So that’s my update.  I’ll let you know when I receive any more letters.

Posted in Life | Comments (0)

No comments yet

Leave a Reply