Airlines Can Keep You From Snapping, But Not Sharing Photos

A recent incident on a commercial airliner raises an interesting question: can an airline bar you from taking pictures on their plane?

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week, a strange thing happened on an American Airlines flight and it was captured on a video that's gone viral.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) And I will always love you...

BLOCK: A woman insistently channeling Whitney Houston forced the plane to make an early landing. The woman was removed from the flight but something else in the video caught our attention.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) And I will always love you...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No photos are allowed to be taken on the aircraft.

BLOCK: No photos allowed. Can they do that? NPR's Martin Kaste looked into it.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: They say they can. And while the faux Whitney Houston was being removed from the plane, you can hear the crew actively and insistently enforcing their rule.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) And I will always love you...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No pictures.

KASTE: A spokesman for the airline says a ban's audio, video and still image recording, except for recording what the company calls personal events. There are similar rules on other airlines. United recently kicked a passenger off an international flight for taking a picture.

Jeff Hermes is director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard.

JEFF HERMES: When a private entity opens up a space to the public that it owns, they retain control over what happens in that space.

KASTE: Still, in this case, American seemed to be enforcing its rules selectively just to head off bad publicity. Of course, businesses have always tried to control photography. For instance, the ag industry has pushed through state laws against activists who videotape inside slaughterhouses.

But what's changed, says lawyer Mickey Osterreicher with the National Press Photographers Association, is those company rules are now affecting the general public.

MICKEY OSTERREICHER: News these days is just as likely to come from somebody with a cell phone camera, as it is from somebody with a press credential.

KASTE: He agrees the airlines have a legal right to restrict photography. But he says the airline has no right to confiscate a camera or to demand you delete a file. And they certainly can't keep you from uploading it.

OSTERREICHER: If it's just a matter of something that's embarrassing to an airline, it's going to be hard for them to get it suppressed, to get it taken down.

KASTE: Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor specializing in privacy, says the First Amendment is pretty generous in this regard.

RYAN CALO: Even though the press are singled out by the very text of the Constitution, most of us enjoy many of the same rights that the press do.

KASTE: So, fellow journalists, the next time you get that tray table view of lunacy at 30,000 feet, you should feel free to share it with the rest of us.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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