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Column: Protecting the Freedom to Photograph in New York City (New York Metro)

By Donna Lieberman — Until recently, the city had no written rules governing the issuance of photography and film permits, and it generally didn’t usually require amateur photographers to get them. The problem? Unwritten rules are hard to follow, and they’re an invitation to arbitrary enforcement. Last year, after Indian filmmaker Rakesh Sharma was unlawfully arrested for filming on the sidewalk in Midtown, he and the New York Civil Liberties Union challenged his arrest in court, and the City agreed to adopt written rules and to narrow its permit scheme.

The new proposed rules are a considerable improvement, but they are still too broad. They would require small groups to get a permit — and purchase one million dollars of insurance — before using a single tripod for more than ten minutes. The rules would also require a permit of anyone who stands with another person and uses a handheld camera in any public area for more than half an hour.

These requirements would sweep into the permit scheme tourists are simply trying to capture the moment in Times Square. They also would reach the work of many amateur and professional photographers and filmmakers.

Yolton, for one, would have to find a new hobby. Birds can’t be counted on to stay in one place long enough for a permit application is being processed. This season Yolton photographed eleven Red-tailed Hawk nests. Under the new rules, he would have had to apply for a permit for each location — and wait 24 to 48 hours before setting up a tripod. In effect, the regulations would make birding photography for more than ten minutes illegal in the City of New York.

There’s room for hope. Following a request from the NYCLU, New York City has agreed to reopen the period for members of the public to submit comments about the controversial proposal. On Friday the City informed the NYCLU that it now will accept comments until August 3rd.

That leaves just a few days for New Yorkers to write to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting and tell them how they feel about the proposed regulations. The city is sure to get an earful — not only from birders but also from the many artists, independent journalists, filmmakers, and other New Yorkers whom the new rules would affect.

Yolton himself has already submitted comments. The new rules, he writes, “are too broad and vague.” The regulations “should concentrate not on limiting photographer’s rights but on protecting public welfare and regulating commercial activity.”

The NYCLU couldn’t have said it better. The city is free to set guidelines preventing the obstruction of city streets or sidewalks. But the current rules violate the First Amendment right to photograph in public places and open the door to selective and discriminatory enforcement. They would put an end to some of the art and journalism that are so important both to American democracy and to the tradition of free expression in New York City.

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