Laguna Beach Stops $100 Non-Commercial Photo Permit Program After Public Complaints

Flip-flops make for great beachwear. However flip-flops aren’t so cool when it comes to quickly changing positions (or policies).

The city of Laguna Beach appears to be flip-flopping on the topic of non-commercial photography permits. Here’s the $64,000 question: what’s the difference between a commercial or non-commercial photograph? Laguna Beach Assistant City Manager Christa Johnson stated the city’s permitting scheme only applies to anyone receiving compensation for photography or filming work.

She told OC Weekly a two-tiered permitting system was established years ago by the City Council to provide people with a more affordable alternative to conduct photo shoots in public spaces. “It is my understanding that long ago the City Council created the second category of film permits at the request of members of the public who wanted a less expensive, more easily obtainable permit for less complicated photo shoots such as engagement photos,” Johnson said.

She continued the city policy on photography permitting has not changed despite amendments made on the Laguna Beach website reflecting the elimination of an explicit non-commercial photography permit category. One might speculate as to why such a policy on non-commercial – ahem, personal – photography existed in the first place.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just create a two-tier commercial photography system, as opposed to identifying the second category as non-commercial?

So Laguna Beach wanted to create a cheaper alternative for certain types of shoots – why not call it something, like, Commercial Photography, Class 2?

Distinguishing between commercial and non-commercial, however, implies a distinction between a hired photographer and someone snapping photos for personal use (or for no compensation).

The phrase “non-commercial” is broad enough to include personal or non-compensated work. Local law enforcement officers aren’t policymakers. What’s to stop an officer from citing someone for snapping photos of a to-be-wed couple at one of Laguna Beach’s beaches, where the photographer is not being compensated (but the officer might assume otherwise)?

Any transaction where money is exchanged between people or businesses fully qualifies as a commercial exchange. A photographer earning compensation for a photo shoot of any kind cannot be “non-commercial.”

Such language is more than confusing – such technical and legal language opens the door to potentially harmful consequences on the public.

Oh, by the way, the city charged $50 per hour for a non-commercial photography permit and required a two-hour minimum. A full-day, 8-hour non-commercial photography permit would cost you $400 – quite a hefty ransom to snap a few family or wedding photos (in addition the fee you might pay your camera operator).

Johnson acknowledge language on Laguna Beach’s website was amended and updated after a barrage of public input spurred City Hall to alter its public photograph policy within a 48-hour span – if only all government could function this efficiently to public complaints!

“This city policy has been in effect for many years and has not changed between Monday, June 12 and today [June 14],” Johnson told the Weekly. “However, over the past two days staff received several comments from the public indicating that titles of the two permit categories was confusing so staff modified the name of the second permit category on the website and the application materials.”

Of course, requiring a permit for commercial (read: compensated) photography work is a commonly regulated activity. A federal court explicitly ruled a city or county government would not be impeding on free speech protections by requiring professional photographers and filmmakers to apply – and pay – for a permit to use cameras on public grounds.

But why create a “non-commercial” permit for photographers who are being compensated for their work? How many uncompensated photographers were cited for conducting photo shoots at Laguna Beach’s public spaces?

Hopefully the city’s misuse of the phrase “non-commercial” – which could be construed as a requiring a permit on personal photography activities – did not result in folks being wrongfully cited.

Parimal M. Rohit is the editor of The Log, OC Weekly’s classier, sister newspaper

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