January 07, 2005

Freedom of Observation

As digital technology and personal publishing systems combine to give every citizen the opportunity for public journalistic - or artistic - expression, paranoid public entities like the New York City subway system are doing all they can to limit these freedoms.

News organizations should combat any efforts to ban citizen photography of public spaces, bans that allow, as stated in the proposed MTA restrictions in New York, photographs to be taken only by "members of the press holding valid press identification cards issued by the New York City Police Department."

We cannot put law enforcement authorities in the position of deciding who is a journalist. Imagine the negative affect this would have on freelancers or journalists who work for publications that are out of favor with authorities or simply citizens who happen upon news.

This New York Times story, focusing on the rich artistic history of subway photography, quotes a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority saying the "new photography rules were devised after extensive talks with the Police Department, which is responsible for patrolling subways and buses."

"Nobody is looking to violate anybody's civil rights or deny anybody's constitutional rights. But when you check with law enforcement agencies, they have uncovered photographs of subway and rail systems from various terrorist organizations. And I don't believe they were going into somebody's scrapbook."

What's next? A ban on sketchbooks and notepads because the scribbler may be outlining a terrorism plot? No photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge or Empire State Building or the Capitol? A no-staring zone in front of Rockefeller Center?

These are not idle fears. Last year, a vacationing Virginian man was arrested for videotaping a Maryland bridge, an activity deemed suspicious by a couple of cops who happened to be passing.

Megalomaniacal corporations like Wal-Mart already dispatch officious toadies to shoo news photographers off their property, declaring, in unabashed arrogance, that any photos of their stores, even if shot from the street, require company permission.

We cannot have freedom of expression - free speech - without freedom of observation. Fears of terrorism and the natural inclination of authority figures like police to, well, exert authority are natural enemies of those freedoms.

Journalists must work to prevent creeping impingements on freedom of observation. A good place to start is with the proposed photo ban on New York's subways.

UPDATE: Dan Gillmor notes on same issue: "When journalists need licenses -- when people need the government's permission to ask the kinds of questions journalists (and concerned citizens) ask every day, the government has new kinds of power."

Posted by Tim Porter at January 7, 2005 07:34 AM