A Photographer's Rights: Photographing on a public street

As photographers, what are our rights when it comes to photographing on a public street?

This post is to share an incident that took place while photographing on a public street in the Port of Tacoma on 6/3/15. I felt strongly I was within my rights. I did further research to reinforce what I already knew about the subject of photographer's rights. I also spent a short time speaking with and getting some basic advice from the ACLU of Washington State, who provided me with a one-page document titled Know Your Rights: Photographers.

I then wrote a letter to the President & CEO of NuStar Energy L.P. detailing the incident and my expectations for the future as it may impact other photographers at this popular location. His response follows my letter. Subsequently I contacted the Port of Tacoma to inquire about their policy with regard to photography and was informed that "You are welcome to take photos from our public observation tower or from any public right-of-way." and "Yes, the roads through the port are public right-of-way. If you run into a gate, then you're probably on private property."


LETTER TO NuStar Energy L.P.

July 30, 2015

Brad Barron, President & CEO
NuStar Energy L.P.
19003 IH-10 West
San Antonio, TX 78257

Mr. Barron, Location map on E D StLocation map on E D StLocation map on E D St

I would like to voice a complaint about a recent incident at the NuStar Tacoma facility. On the evening of 6/3/15 at approximately 8:45PM a photographer friend and I were photographing at the Center for Urban Waters Esplanade in the Port of Tacoma. The Esplanade is a "publicly accessible shoreline walkway that incorporates state of the art environmental and sustainable planning practices and materials." It was a good night to get shots of the sunset, the city and industrial surroundings. At around 9:15PM we were on East D St (a public street in front of the Center for Urban Waters) and photographed in the direction of the lighted storage tanks of the NuStar Energy L.P. further up the road, about 250 yards from the front of the NuStar facility. I went back to the Esplanade to photograph boats coming up the Thea Foss Waterway. A few minutes later my friend came to get me saying that we're in trouble, someone from NuStar came out, demanded and took his driver's license, made a copy and wants our photos deleted. He said that the NuStar employee wanted to see me as well.

I went over to where the NuStar employee was standing (on the public street outside the facility). He asked me to give him my driver's license so he can give my info to the Coast Guard to “check me out.” He also insisted that I delete any photos of the facility from my camera. I nicely told him that, to the best of my knowledge, industry research tells me there is no law preventing me from photographing from a public street and I respectfully refused to give him my driver's license. He said he was sorry but he has to do this. All the while he's on his cell phone getting instructions from someone on the other end telling him what to say/do. He told this person several times that I'm refusing to give him my driver's license.

At one point the NuStar employee said he'd have to call the police if I didn't comply. I told him to go ahead and do so. He did not pursue this leaving me to take it as a mild threat in order to obtain my driver's license. It was apparent the NuStar employee did not know what "law" he was trying to enforce (he was not able to cite one).

I then asked the NuStar employee for his ID because the only identification on him was an employee shirt and a hardhat. He went inside and came back with his ID. As far as I could see it contained no information on rank or authority. His name is either Robert H Hanson or Mason, it was difficult to read in the low light and I was apprehensive at this point to write it down. All the while "Robert" is still on the phone with the other person relaying what's going on.

After about 20 minutes of this I could tell my friend was getting very anxious as I stood my ground and out of respect for his feelings I said I'd delete my photos (my friend had already been intimidated to delete his). I deleted mine but still did not give the NuStar employee my ID. Looking over my shoulder he had me go through all the photos left on my camera one-by-one to ensure that I deleted any of the NuStar facility. He saw a photo of other non-descript storage tanks from further down the street and said I should delete those as well (just basic white storage tanks, no signage, another facility, nothing to do with NuStar). I did not. NuStar Energy L.P. signage 6/3/15NuStar Energy L.P. signage 6/3/15NuStar Energy L.P. signage 6/3/15

I read the signage outside the NuStar facility and explained to "Robert" that, in my interpretation, the posted rules appear to pertain to someone "entering" the facility, which we did not. I pointed out the last line "Entry into NuStar property authorizes consent to search and inspection." adding that this does not mean they have the right to "search and inspection" or to detain us in this manner on a public street. He relayed this to the person on his cell phone and there were some words exchanged about the signage being clearer. I said I want to take a photo of the signage with my cell phone for reference, he asked permission of the other person on his cell phone who said yes. I took on photo of the signage. Shortly after which he let us go.

The NuStar employee did mentioned that in this day and age we could be photographing the facility “looking to blow things up”. I can't recall if he used the word terrorists or not, the entire incident was highly disturbing.

I want to emphasize that the NuStar employee was courteous and respectful at all times and seemingly just following orders. However, the NuStar employee is not an officer of the law nor do I believe he had any legal right to detain us, interrogate us, demand identification and make us delete our photos (not even a law officer has that right) -- all the while on a public street. My intention was only to exercise my right to freedom of expression.

This is a popular area for photography and my hopes are others are not subjected to the same harassment. At minimum I would expect the following from NuStar:

  • To clearly spell out NuStar’s authority for the actions outlined here and to cite, with specificity, exactly what law(s) may have been broken, if any.
  • A written apology from NuStar, and
  • Training NuStar employees to be well-versed on their rights and the rights of others in matters such as these, and
  • Ensure NuStar signage is clear and unambiguous, leaving no room for doubt;


  • NuStar Energy L.P., 250 E D St, Tacoma, WA 98421
  • Center for Urban Waters, 326 E D St, Tacoma, WA 98421

Respectfully submitted,

Ilona Berzups


REPLY FROM NuStar Energy L.P. via email on 8/26/15

-----Original Message-----
From: NuStar Corporate Communications [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: Wednesday, August 26, 2015 6:40 AM
To: Ilona Berzups
Subject: Complaint: NuStar Energy Detainment, Tacoma WA 6/3/15

Hello Ms. Berzups.  Please see the response below from Brad Barron:

Ms. Berzups:

I did receive your letter and I appreciate you bringing this issue to my attention.  While I am very pleased to know that our employee was courteous and professional throughout your interaction with him, please accept my apology for any stress this interaction may have caused you or your friend.

The safety and security of our facilities and our communities is our highest priority.  And, as you can imagine, the security of industrial facilities like ours requires us to be vigilant at all times. So our employees are trained to look for anything out of the ordinary. Our Tacoma Terminal is operated under the regulations of the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) which addresses port and waterway security, and creates a consistent security program for all of the nation's ports to better identify and deter threats.  Under these regulations, our terminal is considered a "sensitive area," and the slightest bit of suspicious activity in or around our facility, including unauthorized photography, must be reported to the authorities.

Thank you for pointing out that our signs may not be clear.  We will be updating our signs to clarify that such photography is prohibited.  And, while you are correct that these signs pertain to activity within the terminal property, the security plan developed pursuant to MTSA regulations, requires us to report any unauthorized photographers taking pictures near our facilities to the Coast Guard. 

Rest assured, however, that I have made our Operations management team well aware of this incident, and we will be reminding our employees of the importance of contacting the proper authorities in the event of suspicious activity -- rather than intervening personally.  So we thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention so that we can use them as an important learning opportunity for our personnel.

Again, please know that we are committed to the safety and security of our facilities for the benefit of all parties.  But please accept my sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused by this unfortunate incident.


Brad Barron
President & CEO
NuStar Energy L.P.