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Decision to kill popular live webcams violates First Amendment, advocates say

Barry Bahrami was surprised last month when two of his webcams stationed at Cabrillo National Monument suddenly stopped working. The cameras had been mounted on a building at the park for almost a decade without incident, livestreaming the comings and goings of ships in the harbor on Bahrami's popular YouTube channel: San Diego Webcam.

Bahrami, a cloud architect, installed the cameras almost 10 years ago at the National Monument at the tip of Point Loma — a position that gave the cameras a clear view in both directions of ships entering and exiting San Diego Bay. Those cameras were streaming Nov. 29 when two Navy warships — the dock landing ship Harper's Ferry and the guided-missile destroyer Momsen — nearly collided head-on in the harbor.

Last month, just before the Navy's investigation into that near-miss was released, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) asked the National Park Service to pull the plug on Bahrami's cameras over what it said were "force protection concerns."


Bahrami said the incident embarrassed the Navy, and he suspects the move to kill his cameras is connected.

"It's not force security and it’s no coincidence they cut it off the day before the report came out," Bahrami said. "Give me a break. The San Diego Webcam is not live streaming anything that people can't already see."

As seen from Cabrillo National Monument, a Navy helicopter flies over Naval Air Station North Island
Charlotte Radulovich
A Navy helicopter flies over Naval Air Station North Island as seen from Cabrillo National Monument April 28.

An NCIS spokesperson said in an email that the agency contacted the National Park Service, but did not comment on the investigation.

"NCIS expressed force protection concerns to the National Park Service related to the private webcams and YouTube channel, which provided 24-hour webcam monitoring of vessels and equities located aboard Naval Air Station North Island, including: aircraft hangers/flight lines, Naval Base Point Loma submarine assets and the tracking of military personnel working aboard Naval Base Coronado," said NCIS spokesperson Jeff Houston.

Buildings and piers of Naval Base Point Loma as seen from Cabrillo National Monument.
Charlotte Radulovich
Part of Naval Base Point Loma as seen from Cabrillo National Monument April 28.

The National Park Service said the cameras were removed based on the Navy's request and its own review.


"At the request of Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Cabrillo National Monument removed non-government cameras on a building in the park due to security concerns," the agency said in an emailed statement. "In addition to national security concerns expressed by NCIS, upon review, the National Park Service found that these web cameras were being used as a commercial operation on public lands generating revenue for the webcam operator without authorization."

Bahrami rejects the notion. His YouTube channel is a commercial operation and said he's lost money maintaining the cameras.

Legal director of the First Amendment Coalition David Loy, said the government's actions against Bahrami amount to censorship.

"This has been an issue in numerous cases," Loy said, in reference to federal lawsuits brought by people filming police and other government agents in public. He said courts have ruled that people have the right to record any government activity done in public.

"The First Amendment guarantees the press and public the right to record, observe and report on anything that occurs in a public place," Loy said. "So if the government has secrets to keep, it needs to keep them secret. It cannot tell the public that you may not film or record or observe matters that the government itself exposes to the full view of the public."

Loy further said the National Park Service's statement that Bahrami was operating the cameras for commercial purposes without authorization is suspect.

"If their policies genuinely prohibited them from doing that, they should have enforced that policy from the beginning," Loy said. "They should not be pulling it out of their pocket now … it sounds a lot like a pretext to me."

For Belinda Taylor, a Navy mom living in Virginia, the issue is personal. Her son recently returned to San Diego on the dock landing ship Ashland, which just switched its homeport to San Diego from Sasebo, Japan. She said she was disappointed the cameras were switched off before she could see the Ashland sail into the bay.

"None of us can really go out there to see him, so having that camera gives us an opportunity," Taylor said. "Even if we can't see him, it's like being there. I'd like to see that camera get turned back on so that we can see our families and our children and other people's children, and celebrate with them when their families come back in."

The dock landing ship Ashland sails into San Diego Bay as captured by one of the alternate San Diego Web Cam cameras.
San Diego Web Cam
San Diego Web Cam captured the dock landing ship Ashland sailing into its new home port of San Diego April 20. The ship was previously based in Sasebo, Japan.

Bahrami said he's made arrangements for new cameras elsewhere on the peninsula and is developing a mobile app which will allow anyone to livestream from anywhere along the bay — including Cabrillo National Monument.

The National Park Service declined to respond to questions about the newly-raised security concerns at Cabrillo National Monument and whether the park would further move to limit visitor access or photography.