MTA administrator disavows curbs on photography

Transit agency chief agrees with ACLU on public's right to take pictures

June 01, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Two photographers who were detained by Maryland Transit Administration police this year and told they were forbidden to take pictures of MTA facilities expressed relief Wednesday after the head of the agency flatly repudiated the officers' actions.

Administrator Ralign T. Wells disavowed police efforts to restrict photography on or around MTA property and said he would take action to head off a threatened lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland before it can be filed.

Wells said MTA officers were not properly representing agency policy when they ordered two amateur photographers to stop taking pictures and video of light rail trains earlier this year. Wells said he would apologize to the photographers and make sure that officers respect the First Amendment rights of photographers.

"We don't have a policy restricting photography," Wells said in an interview Wednesday. "The actions of some of these officers are not reflective of the agency stance."

The two amateur photographers involved in the incidents that prompted the ACLU threat welcomed Wells' statement.

"This is actually a good first step. What the MTA needs to do is follow up on what they indicated," said Olev Taremae of Bethlehem, Pa. Taremae was confronted by MTA police in a February incident at Mount Royal Station in Baltimore, during which he was detained and told that it is illegal under Maryland law and MTA policy to photograph transportation equipment, he said.

Taremae said he still wants the MTA to expunge any record of that incident from its computer files.

Chris Fussell of Portland, Ore., who was detained in a similar incident in March at the Cultural Center light rail station, said he was happy that the MTA responded quickly and admitted error after it received a letter Tuesday from the ACLU outlining its intention to sue if the issue was not resolved.

"Because this is not a new issue, I will reserve final judgment until seeing what steps the MTA will take to ensure that its employees respect photographers' rights," Fussell said.

Wells offered an explanation, but not an excuse, for why transit police ordered Taremae and Fussell to stop taking pictures and video.

"There's just a high sensitivity, post-9/11, to photographers," Wells said. "We obviously have to back off of that."

Wells pointed to a posted policy on the MTA website that states: "A permit is not required for noncommercial, personal-use filming or photography by the general public that does not interfere with transit operations or safety."

However, the day before, an MTA spokesman seemed unaware of the policy and pointed a reporter to language on its website emphasizing a need to seek a permit before taking pictures at or of MTA property.

The ACLU told MTA Transit Police Chief John E. Gavrilis in Tuesday's letter that it would file a lawsuit over his officers' actions in the two incidents if the agency did not make amends to the two men and issue a new policy upholding the rights of photographers. The group gave the MTA until Sept. 1 to make those changes or face legal action.

Wells said his agency would settle its issues with the ACLU without any need for litigation. He said the agency has no policy preventing individuals from taking pictures of MTA equipment or shooting photos or video while on publicly accessible MTA property.

"We're going to work with the ACLU on any of their concerns," he said. "In no way are we battling the ACLU on this. We are in complete agreement with them on this."

The ACLU welcomed the MTA administrator's statement.

"I'm gratified and pleased by Mr. Wells' concern and appreciate his clear statements that what happened shouldn't have happened and that they would take effective steps" to prevent a recurrence, said ACLU staff attorney David Rocah.

Rocah said the ACLU looks forward to the opportunity to sit down with the MTA and work out details of a policy statement that would pass constitutional muster.

"The goal is not filing a lawsuit," he said. "The goal has always been to ensure that the MTA police, like all public officials, act within the limits of their authority and respect citizens' constitutional rights."

Rocah said the ACLU will have to see how the MTA follows up before it can consider the matter resolved. "Statements of policy don't mean anything unless officers and employees know what the policy is and follow it," he said.

Wells said the policy allowing photography had been restated to officers in February and March. He said the ACLU letter and a Baltimore Sun article Wednesday about the controversy would be brought up at roll calls throughout the week.

Wells said MTA officers may approach a photographer and ask to see identification as part of a "field interview." But he said compliance with such a request is voluntary on the photographer's part.

The MTA administrator said officers who are found to have misstated Maryland law or MTA policy in exchanges with photographers could be subject to disciplinary action.

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