MTA warned: Let photographers shoot

ACLU tells agency police can't forbid taking pictures

May 31, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Christopher Fussell likes to take pictures of trains and buses. The 29-year-old Oregonian has shot photos and video of transit systems all over the United States.

It wasn't until he came to Baltimore, he said Tuesday, that he was detained for committing photography.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland put the Maryland Transit Administration on notice Tuesday that it intends to file suit over the conduct of transit police in ordering Fussell and another photographer to stop taking pictures. The group warned that unless the agency meets a series of conditions by Sept. 1, it will take the MTA to court — where it expects to win.

"Photography is expressive activity that is protected by the First Amendment," said ACLU staff attorney David Rocah. "If you are legally present, you have a right to take photographs."

Rocah said the ACLU raised the right to take photographs in 2006 after an officer ordered one of its staff members to stop filming at a station. He said the ACLU chose then to try to resolve the issue amicably — a decision the attorney now calls an error the group will not repeat.

"Our time for friendly discussion is long since past," Rocha said. "We tried that for five years to apparently zero effect."

The MTA declined to comment on the ACLU warning, saying Tuesday that it had just received the letter. But a spokesman pointed to a policy in the agency's media guide urging people who want to photograph MTA facilities to seek permission.

The right of photographers to take pictures in public places has been a point of contention virtually since the invention of the camera. But the disputes have become more frequent — and more contentious — since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which prompted police to challenge individuals who take photos or video of public infrastructure as potential security risks.

Civil libertarians and rights advocates say police have been given no new powers to curb photography since 9/11. In many cases, they say, police are making up laws and rules on the spot and issuing orders they have no right to give.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said it's an issue he deals with all the time.

"I call it the Patriot Act gone wild," he said. "For some reason, police see someone with a camera and they don't want them to take pictures or want to assert their authority."

It was two such confrontations early this year that prompted the ACLU to issue its lawsuit threat in a letter to the MTA police chief, Col. John E. Gavrilis.

The organization says an MTA police officer approached Olev Taremae of Bethlehem, Pa., on Feb. 20 as the avid photographer and railroad enthusiast took pictures of Baltimore's light rail system at Mount Royal Station.

In the letter, the ACLU says Officer Angela Rawlings told Taremae it was illegal to photograph rail operations in Maryland, but later backed off that assertion and said it was against MTA policy.

"Needless to say, both assertions are simply untrue," Rocah wrote. He added that he was "flabbergasted that officers still do not know the relevant legal rules, or deliberately misrepresent them."

Taremae agreed to stop shooting and leave but was given a warning notice — a copy of which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun — with none of a list of 18 violations checked.

The ACLU said Taremae would not discuss the incident. Fussell sat Tuesday for a video interview via Skype from his home in Portland, Ore., to discuss his experience.

Fussell, a student at Western Oregon University who says he takes 15,000 to 20,000 pictures a year during his travels around the country, said he has a particular interest in transportation systems.

Fussell said he got off a northbound light rail train at Baltimore's Cultural Center station on March 21 to transfer to a train to Penn Station. He said he was taking pictures of passing trains when an MTA employee told him the activity was forbidden and she would summon police.

In the letter, the ACLU says three officers who responded "acted in a hostile and threatening manner to someone who did absolutely nothing wrong, spewing misstatements of the law at every turn."

Unlike Taremae, Fussell refused to stop filming when officers told him to "cease and desist" — asserting that he had a constitutional right to take pictures in a public place. He captured the encounter in a video now posted on YouTube under the headline "Detained in Baltimore for Photography."

Fussell said he was especially concerned that there be a record of his interaction with police because he is hearing-impaired and depended on lip-reading to understand the officers.

"I know my rights, and I did my best not to break any laws," Fussell said. "I didn't feel like shutting the camera off because they had already been dishonest with me from the get-go."

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