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University increases enforcement of campus photography policy

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The University recently stepped up enforcement of its photography policy, leaving photographers uncertain about whether they are technically allowed to photograph Stanford landmarks. Security guards patrolling the Main Quad and other campus landmarks have been instructed to question the intent of individuals with professional camera equipment.

Jeff Keller, a local photography enthusiast, was tweaking the settings of his professional-grade camera atop a tripod in the Main Quad on Feb. 9 when he was approached by two security personnel and asked to leave. Keller runs “The Digital Camera Resource Page” (DCRP), a photography review website. He took photos in the quad to test the image quality of his new camera and later posted the test results online.

“I take the same picture in the hallway of the Main Quad with different cameras, at the same time, with the same conditions, and I’ve been doing it for at least 10 years,” Keller said.   By taking photos from the exact same spots and controlling for external factors, Keller allows his website visitors to accurately compare the resolutions of different digital cameras. The Main Quad shots and those taken from four other locations around campus have been DCRP’s hallmark method of comparison for over a decade.

The security guards who stopped Keller instructed him to contact associate director of University Communications Kate Chesley for questions regarding the policy. The policy states “commercial [photography] requests are not compatible with the teaching and research missions of the university and with its non-profit status.”

In a letter to Chesley, Keller requested permission to continue taking photos on Stanford’s campus, arguing “these photos are never resold” and are not of commercial value. Chesley rejected his request.

“Although you are not selling the photographs, your site is of a commercial nature,” Chesley wrote in an e-mail to Keller. Chesley emphasized that the photo policy is not new, but that enforcement had increased recently.

“The amount of commercial photography we have been experiencing recently simply has become unsustainable, especially given Stanford’s strict privacy policies,” she said.

Lisa Lapin, associate vice president of communications, said Stanford has a “simple, compelling legal reason” to prevent commercial photography and that photographers have become a “nuisance.”

As a private trademark, Stanford “wants to protect its brand, image and identity from unauthorized use,” Lapin said.

“Stanford has become unbelievably popular,” she added. “Now we have all sorts of entities trying to affiliate themselves with Stanford. We don’t want anyone to profit from a perceived affiliation with us.”

Similarly, the University does not want to be negatively impacted by appearing to endorse institutions that reflect poorly on it. The photo policy also seeks to protect the privacy of the students and faculty, some of whom might be exploited by photographers.

“The Main Quad is not a public park,” Lapin said.

Controversy surrounding the policy does not chiefly revolve around the ban on commercial photography per se, but how “commerciality” is defined.

Keller acknowledged that Stanford, as a private institution, reserves the right to prohibit any kind of photography. But he rejected the notion that his photos present a threat to Stanford’s image or its academic mission.

“Enforcement is uneven,” Keller said. “Stanford needs a clear, more realistic way of determining what commercial photography is. If I didn’t have a tripod, I wouldn’t have been noticed.”

Keller also questioned how Stanford security guards could identify whether a person was shooting for commercial reasons. On the one hand, someone with a tripod and a high-end camera could simply be shooting photos for his own use. Someone with a point-and-shoot camera could post his photos on “a blog that generates money from advertisements,” Keller said.

“The bottom line is there is no shooting in the Quad or Memorial Court without permission, no matter what the purposes or who the sponsor or who you are,” said Megan Miller, communications manager at the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SICA). “It just isn’t allowed.”

In an e-mail sent to the Stanford photography mailing list, Miller warned students against violating the photo policy. List members responded with concerns about the policy’s legitimacy, one joking that he would file a request to take a picture with his iPhone.

“After a debriefing with some communications staff, I felt responsible to let everyone know about the policy, so they wouldn’t get in trouble,” Miller said.

So who really can photograph in the Main Quad?

Technically, every person needs permission, but security personnel do not prevent tourists and students with small personal cameras from taking snapshots. Everyone else—including news agencies, commercial photographers, students shooting for academic purposes and people with professional-grade equipment—must file requests.

Requests are sometimes granted.

But commercial requests will nearly always be denied, with several notable exceptions. If a Stanford alumnus, faculty member or student wants to get married, professional photographers may document the wedding; weddings with non-Stanford affiliated individuals are barred.

That way, it makes it more meaningful for the brides and grooms that do have an affiliation,” Lapin said.

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