BALTIMORE, MD - The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is threatening to sue the Maryland Transit Administration for failing to cure a long pattern of illegal harassment of photographers and videographers. In a letter sent on May 31, the ACLU points to two recent incidents in which visitors to Baltimore, one of whom is a published photographer, were harassed and threatened by MTA Police for taking pictures of or filming MTA light rail trains. One of the incidents, involving Portland resident Christopher Fussell, was captured on videotape (part 1 and part 2).
The letter also points out that the recent incidents are a continuation of harassment that has gone on for many years, despite the ACLU bringing the issue to the MTA's attention beginning in 2006, and despite previous MTA pledges to cease the harassment.
"These recent incidents make clear that the MTA has done nothing meaningful to ensure that its officers and employees know that photography in public places is perfectly legal, and is in fact protected by the First Amendment," said David Rocah, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. "Absolutely nothing that any of the officers said during either of these incidents was an accurate statement of MTA regulations or the law, and the MTA must take effective action to ensure that it ceases its illegal harassment of photographers."
In one incident, which took place on February 20, 2011, an MTA police officer told Olev Tamerae, a photographer visiting Baltimore from Pennsylvania, that it was illegal to photograph rail operations in Maryland, despite the fact that no law prohibits it, and the MTA has no regulation prohibiting such conduct. The officer then demanded Tamerae's identification, and issued him a "Warning Notice" documenting the encounter, on which all of his identifying information had been recorded.
"During a weekend trip to Baltimore pursuing my hobby of photographing lighthouses and transit operations, I was quite surprised to be confronted by an MTA police officer who asserted that I was engaging in illegal activity by photographing the light rail operation from the Mount Royal station platform," said Tamerae, "This was quite upsetting, particularly because I did not consider that I had done anything wrong nor was I causing any potential harm."
In a separate incident on March 21, 2011, several MTA officers accosted Christopher Fussell, who was photographing the light rail operations at the Cultural Center station while waiting for a train to Penn Station. The three MTA police officers on the scene, one of whom claimed to be a supervisor, recited a litany of misstatements about the law, including that a permit is required to photograph on state property, that persons engaged in photography are required to provide identification to police officers, that "since 9/11 no one is allowed to take pictures of any type of railway conveyance, plane, airport, or anything like that," and that it was illegal for Fussell to record the officers' statements to him. None of these statements is correct. Fussell was detained for more than thirty minutes, because officers confiscated his fare card, and he was repeatedly threatened with arrest based on his refusal to provide identification, despite the fact that he had not committed any crime.
"Having learned of others who have had similar experiences, both in Baltimore and around the country, I am pursuing this issue because I want to protect the rights of all citizens, the same rights we expect all police officers to know and uphold," said Fussell, a college student at Western Oregon University. Fussell has a professional interest in public transit, an area in which he hopes to make a career. He worked for the light rail system in Portland, Oregon for four years before going to college.
The ACLU first contacted the MTA about harassment of photographers in July, 2006, when one of its paralegals was told by an MTA police officer that she could not take pictures of the bus depot at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore. The ACLU paralegal had been photographing the depot as preparation for an ACLU lawsuit regarding the agency's rules governing leafleting on its property. After protracted discussions, the ACLU deferred filing suit based on assurances from the MTA that a constitutional policy would be created and enforced.
Olev Tamerae and Christopher Fussell are represented by pro bono attorney C. Christopher Brown of Brown Goldstein and Levy, and by David Rocah from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.