The New York Civil Liberties Union this month expanded a federal lawsuit challenging how the New York City Police Department treats photographers and filmmakers. The NYCLU alleges that NYPD officers are unlawfully detaining photographers and threatening them with arrest if they will not destroy their images or show them to police officers.
Police officials allege that the most common type of complaint called into the NPYD’s terrorism hotline are reports about photographers. The NYCLU’s amended legal complaint alleges that the Department has no policies, procedures, or training for investigating such reports, and consequently, police officers are violating the First Amendment rights of photographers and filmmakers.
“Photography is fully protected by the First Amendment, and police investigations into photographers must be sensitive to that,” NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn said. “While investigations may be appropriate in certain cases, people cannot be arrested for taking pictures, and police officers cannot coerce them into destroying images. The NYPD should assure it has reasonable policies and that officers are properly trained to handle these special investigations.”
Today's filing expands on a lawsuit that the NYCLU filed in January 2006 on behalf of Rakesh Sharma, a noted documentary filmmaker who had been detained for several hours by NYPD officers last year after filming taxi cabs from a midtown sidewalk. After filing the case, the NYCLU learned that the NYPD was conducting a large number of photography investigations and had no policies, procedures, or training for such investigations.
Todd Maisel, associate director of the National Press Photographers Association, commented “I welcome the lawsuit. It’s time for the NYPD to sit down with press organizations and with the NYCLU and decide how these things should work and stop acting in a capricious way.”
Maisel added that in his experience, “arrests for ‘taking pictures’ usually come in the course of police officers doing their job, arresting someone else, and they don’t want to be photographed arresting someone, so they charge the photographer with obstructing justice, or disorderly conduct, or they throw them to the ground and then charge them with resisting arrest. A Reuters photographer who was photographing police was charged with ‘obstructing traffic.’ It’s getting ridiculous.”
Click to read the NYCLU’s complaint. Also serving as counsel on the case are Sam Munger and Elizabeth Owen, two NYU Law School students.