Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Excuse me sir - Taking pictures in public now makes you a terrorist

In what has to be the most egregious incident yet of police trampling individual rights in this country, the Baltimore Sun reports that an Oregon student, whose hobby is photographing transit and railroad structures, cars, trains, etc, was detained and harassed by Maryland Transit Police for haveing the gaul to pursue his hobby in a Baltimore light rail station.

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.
As it turns out, not only were the cops trying to detain the man for violating MTA policy (as opposed to breaking an actual law), but the MTA is not sure its policy is Constitutional:

John Wesley, a spokesman for the MTA, said the agency would have no immediate reply to the allegations in the ACLU letter.

Wesley said MTA policy, as spelled out in its media guide, asks members of the public to seek permission before filming.

"If you film, photograph or interview customers on MTA property or film any MTA property or stations, please make your request through the Office of Communication and Marketing," the policy reads.

"It doesn't say what the consequences are if you don't," Wesley said. Asked whether the policy would pass legal muster, he said "I'm not sure whether or not it's constitutional."
So, the ACLU, which is about to sue the MTA over this and other incidents, basically has an MTA official on record saying the officers, sworn to uphold the law, may well be violating the Constitution by seeking to enforce a policy that has no weight of law behind it. In addition, the MTA wants anyone who might ever take a picture in one of its stations to get permission first?

Leaving aside the enormous logistical issue of insisting every person who ever snaps a photo in an MTA station to ask beforehand (there go all those spontaneous Friday night going to a party photos and vacation pictures), how does MTA reasonably expect that it, a public agency, funded by taxes, has the right to limit what taxpaying citizens and visitors can do in public spaces?

Its stuff like this that makes my blood boil. As a citizen, you used to have a basic right to take pictures of public facilities, public spaces, and public transit without anyone batting an eye. Now you are presumed to be a terrorist. That, dear readers, is as clear an erosion of civil liberties as I can think of.

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