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.

Big interest

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.

Constitutional guarantees?

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.

Related:

RV “vloggers” fined, threatened with arrest for taking video in National Park

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Kenneth
25 days ago

Along these lines, from personal experience, always be careful what you say to a “Ranger” especially to one who is clearly (or not clearly) a “LEO” (Law Enforcement Officer). They are not your “friend” and you can easily violate some obscure PARK RULE that you don’t even know about, or makes no sense to you. Also just like Cops there is a small percentage that are more interested in the “Authority” the job gives them and the “Letter of the Rule” instead of the “spirit”. Example: Bunch of us trailering together take our cars to loosely tour the Park, we meet up at a visitor center and a young Ranger strikes up a friendly light hearted conversation. In the course she asks how many of us are there and how many cars. (Think we had maybe 8 cars) Informs us we need to buy a permit for that many cars and people. Just a bunch of old folks together wandering but we violated their Rule.

Uncle Swags
25 days ago

So long as they are not disturbing the peace, I don’t care what they do with their videos or photos. Using drones clearly disturbs the peace and not something that people go to parks to experience. Have some fun at their expense and photobomb their shoot when possible. I did this so often working in NYC that I am now the most recognized person in many foreign lands. If you stand behind the photographer and make funny faces the subjects always laugh and make for a good photo. And if you show up in their commercial video you may be entitled to compensation, scale if you’re in the union. There is probably a lawyer infomercial on how to do this.

Steve
25 days ago

So now we can expect to see Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese in our favorite National Parks making multi billion dollar films because we all have the “RIGHT”. Welcome them and their 400 cast, crew and support staffs into your favorite campgrounds. Sometimes some peoples “rights” infringe on the “rights” and pursuit of happiness of the many.
If your intent is to film in our parks for memories you are not using public property for personal gain, on the other hand if you are filming in our parks for commercial purposes (personal gain) you are using our public resources in a manner that justifies
re-compensation for the degradation of the same. This is an exact perversion of the intents our forefathers had in establishing these very sacred places as National Parks.
God help us all in our pursuit for our “equal rights” and may he also guide us in using compassion in seeing the rights of one do not out way the will of the many.

Jed Smith
23 days ago
Reply to  Steve

Personally, if a film requires 400 people who will be trampling plants to get in the right place, moving large equipment, blocking everyone else’s view, breaking stuff, etc… I don’t care if it is commercial are not the parks should be protected from that kind of encroachment.

Looking back over the article, it seems that the problem was that the permit was for “commercial” instead of “resource protection”. This makes sense as the National Parks shouldn’t be wasting resources making sure everyone with a camera or phone isn’t posting their photos or videos somewhere someone could possibly make money but protecting the Park. Thinking about it, it seems that if you wanted to take this to the realm of ridiculous, even posting on a social media outlet could be seen as “commercial” as the social media giants make money from ads shown and if someone takes amazing pictures of a National Park and shares them with their friends the social media companies can show more ads.

Bob Palin
25 days ago

you can now shoot to your heart’s content.”

It’s doubtful that the NPS has changed their rules (yet?), so what you can do for now is shoot and have a nice precedent in your court case fighting the ticket. Will the NPS roll over or will they come back again?

The most likely outcome is a compromise, you will be allowed to shoot film and photographs but will need a permit to place equipment over a certain size or weight on NPS lands for any reason, which will avoid the first amendment issue. The judge even stated that her ruling did not cover large scale use of equipment specifically.

(I’m a photographer not a lawyer so don’t treat this as legal advice!)

JEB
25 days ago

It is one thing to do a little filming but another to set up lights camera, action type scene with generators going etc.. Sounds like the Park employees did not know how to interpret using common sense.

Dale
25 days ago

If you are filming, do not complain if another park visitor wanders through your scene. They have a right to enjoy the park also.

STEPHEN P Malochleb
25 days ago

A common sense judge. Who woulda thought it. The land of the free, unless someone wants to make money.

Dave
25 days ago

Does this include drones?

Rick
25 days ago
Reply to  Dave

Probably not. Flying a drone is not a freedom of speech issue. It is a freedom issue but not one of speech protected by the constitution and would most likely fall under the protection of the park rules as can be shown by the one that was crashed into one of Yellow Stone’s hot springs causing damage to that spring.

Bob Palin
25 days ago
Reply to  Dave

No, drones are still forbidden for any usage, which avoids the first amendment issue.

WEB
29 days ago

Now, does this “content based restriction” still apply to the censors on this site?

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
29 days ago
Reply to  WEB

Totally depends on how the “content” is presented. If it’s rude, offensive, derogatory, etc., we will “muzzle” it. Doesn’t happen very often, though, especially lately. Take care. 🙂 —Diane at RVtravel.com

Parker
25 days ago
Reply to  RV Staff

Thank you for keeping this site nice.

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
25 days ago
Reply to  Parker

Thank you, Parker. We’re trying. Have a great day, and stay healthy. 😀 —Diane at RVtravel.com

Bob Palin
25 days ago
Reply to  WEB

The first amendment doesn’t apply to private entities or communications, which this is.