ACLU says it intends to sue Maryland transit agency for trying to stop photographer from taking pictures

This is a photo of a Maryland Transit Administration train in Baltimore that was posted on Flickr. Photo by skabat169.

A very interesting story ran earlier this week in the Baltimore Sun: The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has said it intends to sue the Maryland Transit Administration because transit police tried to stop a pair of photographers from taking pictures of trains and other transit infrastructure.

The ACLU contends that in this case photography is a protected First Amendment right. Excerpt from the story that neatly frames the issue:

The right of photographers to take pictures in public places has been a point of contention virtually since the invention of the camera. But the disputes have become more frequent — and more contentious — since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which prompted police to challenge individuals who take photos or video of public infrastructure as potential security risks.

Civil libertarians and rights advocates say police have been given no new powers to curb photography since 9/11. In many cases, they say, police are making up laws and rules on the spot and issuing orders they have no right to give.

The Maryland Transit Administration declined comment on the prospect of a lawsuit but said its media guide requests that people request permission from the agency before taking photos.

Attentive readers of The Source know why this is a relevant issue: Our “Art of Transit” posts feature photography of transit systems across the globe on a daily basis. Furthermore, I frequently encourage readers to take photos of Metro’s system because I believe it’s a creative and fun way to show readers the Metro system.

As I’ve noted before, Metro does have photography guidelines:

  • Only permissible in public areas, proof of fare required in marked fare required areas (station platforms of all rail stations and the Metro Orange Line)
  • No commercial photography without prior authorization and consent from Metro
  • Hand held equipment only, no tripods are permitted
  • No photography inside moving trains for privacy and safety reasons
  • No flash photography, especially into oncoming transit vehicles (rail or bus)
  • Photography must not interfere with passenger safety or movement at any time

I don’t believe these guidelines are overly burdensome. One issue briefly alluded to is the taking of photos of strangers — an issue that photographers must contend with everywhere.

On this front, I’ll say this: if you intend to publish a photo of a stranger, the courteous thing to do is ask their permission. As for the “Art of Transit,” I do consider the privacy of all transit passengers when selecting photos for The Source.

As for the larger issue of allowing photography of our transit system, I’ll say this: if I thought it compromised the safety of passengers or employees of Metro, I wouldn’t encourage it. But I believe photography is one of the great tools that humanity has to tell its own story and those who wish to do evil will do so with or without a camera.


15 replies

  1. Its disappointing that taking pictures while inside a train or bus is not permitted since people generally are not concerned about privacy on public transit and the main reason people do it is to simply document the riding experience of a transit line, mainly with camera shots looking out the window. If anything, taking in-transit photos or video promotes a system and allows people to have a better understanding of what to expect on said transit vehicle or line.

    “…and those who wish to do evil will do so with or without a camera.” I completely agree and I really don’t believe there is any rational basis for claiming this somehow aids terrorists in anyway more than just fear mongering.

  2. Ok, this is getting silly.

    I feel bad for Steve for having to field ridiculous questions on here. He BLOGS FOR METRO. There’s no way he would know some of the questions you’re asking…you act like he’s THE security expert at Metro, and knows all and is responsible for all.

    Here is my “secret.” I’ve had pics on here before, and take pictures of transit/transportation whenever I get the chance.

    Security: “Show me your pictures.”
    Me: “Sure!”
    Security: “You can’t take pictures.”
    Me: “Ok!”
    *waits for security to leave or goes to other location/station/area*
    *continues taking pictures*

    There you have it. You’re welcome for that valuable information. The secret is to care less about silly things.

  3. Last year at Aviation Station, I heard someone being told to put their camera away over the PA.

  4. “As far as I can tell from your most recent comment, nor do you have any actual evidence it’s a problem for Metro patrons.”

    It has been documented in print and in video. It has happened on the Red Line. It has happened at Union Station. Some have come here to tell their story. In the past, photographers staged a large photography shoot on the Red Line in protest of harassment. There is evidence that it happens, and that it happens at all makes it a problem.

  5. Mr. Hymon, are official records kept? Has an independent investigation been done? Are there “secret shoppers” that use the transit system and report on what they find and how they are treated?

    And even if it does not happen a lot, how much is too much? I believe that once is far too many times to be threatened with arrest if you do not delete your photos and put your camera away.

    Finally, those with telephoto lenses and DLSR cameras tend to be harassed the most. I was harassed while using a point and shoot camera down in San Diego though. Note that some people who enjoy taking photos on transit may not be the most outgoing and strong people on the planet, so that experience really shook me up and I still feel a lot of anxiety when I take transit to this day. This harassment is serious business.

    • Hi Spokker;

      I think the original post explains my views and I that I think it’s an important issue.

      As far as I know, there are no official records, nor am I aware of any need for an investigation. I’ll repeat again what I wrote earlier — I have not had problems taking photos of Metro buses or trains, nor do I hear about people having problems. As far as I can tell from your most recent comment, nor do you have any actual evidence it’s a problem for Metro patrons.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  6. Hi Steve:

    I think the guy who is the head of security for MARTA has backed down and is trying to reach an accomodation with the ACLU so the suit doesn’t go forward.

    I read this somewhere on, passenger trains section, and if I have time, will try to find the appropriate link.

    In general, you and the others including Dave Sotero are doing a great job overall with The Source, etc.

    Best regards,

    —“Ken” Ruben—

  7. And Metro wonders why they get so few submissions for transit photos.

    • Hi Y Fukuzawa;

      I think it’s presumptuous of you to suggest lack of submissions for “art of transit” has anything to do with readers of the Source being told not to take photos. Yes, I’m aware it has happened and that’s why the previous comments were published. But I don’t have any proof that it happens a lot and I’ve never been told to put down my phone camera and I certainly take my share of photos.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  8. While security is of vital importance, I do think our country has gone too far in the direction of suppressing civil liberties due to well-meaning security concerns. TSA “groping” would be a prime example. But a whole of range of issues are relevant, too.

    We don’t want to let the terrorists win by enacting oppressive changes ourselves — and I fear that in so many cases we have done this.

    Glad to read this well balanced post.

  9. “No photography inside moving trains for privacy and safety reasons”

    Your Art of Transit feature has showcased in-vehicle photography in the past.

    I don’t think people have an expectation of privacy on a public transit vehicle (we barely have an expectation of privacy in cars) and safety is not an issue at all. If you have a handheld camera, you can hold it with one hand and shoot photos, even while standing. Riders routinely stand while grabbing a pole with one hand and looking at a book or their phone in their other hand. A camera would be no different.

    I have no desire to get into people’s faces and start taking pictures of them, but interior shots can be enlightening, and I usually see them taken from a corner or middle of the train in wide shots.

    It also discourages photography looking out from the train or bus’ windows, of which there are many examples, including my own shots.

    Encouraging photography and especially video within trains and buses can promote safety in that if a crime is caught on camera, the perpetrators can be sought. Security cameras can’t catch everything and they certainly won’t help you if you are a victim of a crime (security cameras are not for the benefit of customers in most situations. I was the victim of crime in a parking lot once, and the store would not let me see the security footage. They would not budge on the issue). It is best to keep your own camera rolling.

    I encourage everybody to keep a camera with them at all times and start filming on transit vehicles if they feel the need to do so to document whatever their heart desires.

  10. I’m glad to hear there are now uniform rules about photography in Metro stations.

    About 4 years ago, I was trying to take pictures in 7th/Metro station, when an officer approached me and told me to stop. After questioning me about what I was doing, he told me unequivocally that I was not allowed to take pictures in the station.

    I understand and fully support Metro taking reasonable measures to keep our stations safe. Hopefully, Metro security will be diligent about enforcing these rules correctly, and will refrain from making up new restrictions on the spot.

  11. The concern from the Transit Police is terrorism, not invasion of privacy. Terrorists are known for first filming the areas they hit.