By Russ and Tiña De Maris
A few months ago we posted a story regarding a young couple who got in hot water for shooting video footage in the nation’s parks. When the Park Service found out they were “making money” from their efforts, they hit Kara and Nate with a $1,000 fine, and banned them from any future filming in any national park. Under the Park Service view, it’s illegal to shoot film in national parks without permits if there’s money to be made.
The story drew huge interest among our readers, and plenty of backlash comments. Some sided with the Park Service, calling the couple “spoiled brats” and said they needed to play by the rules. Others raised issues that the nation’s parks are, indeed, the nation’s parks and hence the people’s parks, and that such draconian measures by the Service were out of line.
There is indeed a law on the books that requires a permit (with fees to be paid) for commercial filming in the park system. Fail to get the permit and you leave yourself open to fines and up to six months in a prison cell. Now comes a ruling by a federal court judge that may put the issue to rest – on the side of anyone who wants to film in a national park, commercially or otherwise.
Back in 2018, independent film director George Price was caught by Park Service officers filming at the Yorktown Battlefield in Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Price was putting together footage for a feature film about York County unsolved murders. Officials handed Price a citation – perhaps thinking that would be the end of the matter.
Unlike Kara and Nate, who mulled over the thought of no longer visiting national parks, Gordon Price took a different tack: He sued. His reasoning was that it shouldn’t be illegal to shoot film in national parks without permits, based on the Constitutional guarantees of free speech. Put another way, for the Park Service to require a permit for his film making was effectively a muzzle.
Price filed suit against the Service and others in December 2019. In his action, he argued that since the Service doesn’t require a permit for non-commercial filming, nor for “news gathering” purposes, requiring him to have a permit was a “content based restriction” on his First Amendment right to free speech. After both Gordon Price and the federal defendants in the case all asked the court to move to summary judgment – that is, without requiring a full trial – things moved rather quickly.
The court rules
On January 22, 2021, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly brought the matter to a close. In her ruling, the judge took Price’s side in the matter and determined that the National Park Service may not require permits for commercial filming. She found that to require such a permit would indeed infringe on free speech rights. At the same time, she did find that one of the Park Service’s reasons for requiring a permit was indeed for “resource protection.” But she could hardly find that one man with a tripod-mounted camera was reason enough for the permit. This, particularly so, when no permit would be required for a person with a camera and tripod who was not filming commercially. Where’s the difference in resource damage?
Shoot film in national parks without permits? Assuming no higher court intervenes, you can now shoot to your heart’s content.