The New York Civil Liberties Union, in conjunction with the New York University Law School Civil Rights Clinic, filed a federal lawsuit in Manhattan today on behalf of a prominent documentary film maker who was arrested and detained by NYPD officers for filming on a public sidewalk in midtown. The suit also claims that New York City's film-permit scheme is unconstitutional and seeks a court order against its enforcement.
Rakesh Sharma is a critically-acclaimed independent filmmaker from India who has won awards for his documentary films. In May 2005 he was visiting New York to make a film about the lives of ordinary people, including taxi drivers, in the post-9/11 world. After lawfully filming various midtown scenes with a handheld camera while standing on a city sidewalk, he was detained by NYPD officers, held for hours, and interrogated. The officers searched his possessions and camera before releasing him. He was told he needed to have a permit for future filming.
Mr. Sharma returned to New York in November 2005 and applied for a permit so he would not be harassed again. The Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting denied his request and refused to provide him with a written explanation. The MOFTB has no written permit standards and requires applicants to have $1 million of insurance.
"In a democracy, people have the right to document activity in public places without being arrested," said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director. "When the city tried to stop people from taking pictures in the subway, we objected and the city backed down. In the same way, we are challenging the city's arbitrary film permitting scheme, which exposes legitimate filmmakers to risk of arrest for taking pictures on the streets of New York."
NYCLU Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn, who also serves as a Professor in the NYU Civil Rights Clinic, said: "With its many landmarks and rich street life, New York City is the focus of much important photography and filming. The police can and should investigate suspicious activity, but that does not give them license to arrest people for public photography."
"It's a sad day when the police think they can detain and mistreat someone simply for making a film on a public street in New York City," plaintiff Rakesh Sharma said. "I cooperated with them and answered all their questions, but they treated me like a criminal. It was wrong, and I was scared and humiliated."
NYU law students Sam Munger, Elizabeth Owen and Katherine Steele are working as counsel on Mr. Sharma's case. Mr. Sharma's professional website is online at www.rakeshfilm.com.