The U.S. Forest Service has a proposed directive that requires a permit for taking photos or videos under certain circumstances in wilderness areas. This would apply to millions of acres of federal lands.
It was first reported that these rules would apply broadly, making exceptions only for coverage of breaking news. With expensive permits and possible fines up to $1,000, this story started getting some traction.
Many opponents of the announcement are saying that it would violate 1st Amendment rights to free speech.
After the criticism picked up some steam, the U.S. Forest Service quickly backtracked.
The U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell stated, “The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the 1st Amendment. To be clear, provisions in the draft directive do not apply to news gathering or activities.”
They are now claiming that the proposed directive would apply to those doing commercial filming in wilderness areas and that no permit is needed for journalism or recreational photography.
It is easy to think of reasons that the original intent may have been to limit all photography and filming. It is an act of control. It is a way to stop bad press. Government agencies don’t like bad press. If there is some kind of land mismanagement (which there certainly is), then the bureaucrats managing it certainly don’t want to be questioned or exposed.
Of course, at up to $1,500 per permit, the government can always use some extra cash in its pocket too.
The First Amendment and Property Rights
While I certainly side with those that fight government secrecy and those that quote the Bill of Rights, I think the argument of the 1stAmendment is overused.
In this particular case, there is certainly an element of free speech and free press. But in most cases where the 1st Amendment is cited, it is usually an issue of property rights, or a lack of property rights.
It is said that you should be able to speak freely except in certain situations, such as yelling “fire” in a movie theater, when there is no fire. But it really comes down to who owns the movie theater and what his policy is regarding this.
In most movie theaters, the owner doesn’t want you falsely yelling “fire”. In fact, he probably doesn’t want you yelling anything unless there is an actual emergency. If you are disrupting other customers, the owner of the movie theater (or a manager on his behalf) may tell you to leave, and it should be his right to do so. It is his property, so he gets to dictate the terms of the speech.
When property rights are existent and respected, then there usually isn’t any issue about free speech. It is up to the owner of the property.
So you can see the problem in the case of the U.S. Forest Service. The problem comes about because it is so-called public land.
Why does the federal government own millions of acres of land? It owns a large piece of the western United States. If the land under the U.S. Forest Service’s domain were owned privately, then this problem wouldn’t exist.
In addition, a lot of other problems probably wouldn’t exist, as property owners tend to take care of their property a lot better than the government takes care of property. It is no coincidence that most of these raging wildfires occur on government owned land.
In conclusion, it is positive news that this directive was brought to light and highly criticized. It is positive news that it forced the agency to backtrack. Now we need to get the government to start selling off some of this land, for the sake of our liberty and our environment.