December 6, 2007 — The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a Columbia University graduate student of Indian descent who was unlawfully handcuffed and detained in July after a police officer saw him snapping photographs near a subway station in upper Manhattan.
The NYPD has a history of harassing photographers and violating their First Amendment rights, particularly those who fit certain ethnic profiles. This is the second lawsuit the NYCLU has recently filed against the NYPD as part of an effort to force the Department to adopt policies and training so that officers will understand and respect the First Amendment rights of photographers and filmmakers.
“In our society, people have a clear right to document activity in public places without being hassled by the police,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “Arun was taking photos, something protected by the Constitution, but the color of his skin made him a target of suspicion. The police should know better than to engage in this sort of ugly, unlawful behavior.”
The plaintiff, Arun Wiita, a 26-year-old Columbia graduate student in the M.D./Ph.D. program, was arrested shortly after he embarked on a planned 10-day project of photographing all 468 subway stations and their surrounding streetscapes. He was standing on the sidewalk at 207th Street and 10th Avenue taking pictures with a point-and-shoot digital camera when an NYPD officer interrupted him.
Though Mr. Wiita was entirely cooperative, explained his project to the officer and showed him his Columbia identification, the officer handcuffed Mr. Wiita had him stand on a busy street corner for a half an hour.
During that time, the officer reviewed Mr. Wiita’s pictures and called in information over his radio. Two plainclothes police officers also arrived on the scene, questioned Wiita and viewed his photographs. Following the public interrogation, the officers released Wiita from the handcuffs and allowed him to leave.
“I was surprised and upset that I could be handcuffed on the street for taking a photograph,” Wiita said. “What was really disheartening was that I knew this had probably happened before and that it could happen again to anyone.”
Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director and lead counsel in the case, said many other photographers have reported similar incidents and that the NYPD was fully aware of these problems as a result of a letter the NYCLU sent to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly in May 2006.
“People cannot be arrested or handcuffed for taking pictures,” Dunn said. “Photography is fully protected by the First Amendment, and police investigations into photographers must be sensitive to that. The NYPD clearly has failed to sufficiently train and supervise its officers to ensure that people can take photographs without fear of police harassment.”
Also serving as counsel in the case are Timothy Foster and Benjamin Kleinman, who are NYU Law School students participating in the Civil Rights Clinic.