New York street photographers and indie filmmakers say their First Amendment rights are still at risk under newly revised regulations put forth by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting (MOFTB). Following a summer- long outcry from artists and activists over the first draft of rules published on May 25—which largely prohibited shooting in the city without a permit and $1 million insurance policy—the city redrew its guidelines and released a friendlier version on October 30. But the battle is far from over.
“Out on the streets, photographers and filmmakers continue to face serious problems with police interference,” filmmaker Jem Cohen recently wrote via e-mail. Cohen, who has had his film confiscated by Amtrak police and has been repeatedly shut down by the New York City Police Department, cites as evidence a New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed earlier this month against the NYPD for the handcuffing and detaining of Columbia grad student Arun Wiita, who had been photographing a Manhattan subway station in July.
Last Thursday, a final and sparsely attended public hearing took place at the offices of the Economic Development Corporation to address the rules (with nearly as many video cameras present as people). While the NYCLU, along with advocacy groups such as Cohen’s Picture NY, I-Witness, and the National Press Photographers Association, commended the MOFTB for eliminating certain mandates (permits were required for two or more people using a camera for more than 30 minutes), two major sticking points remain: the definition of “obstruction” and the need for police training.
As currently stated in the regulations, permits are required if filming or photographic activity involves the “obstruction of one or more lanes of a street or walkway or a bridge, or if such activity results in less than eight feet or one half of the width of the sidewalk.”
Critics say the obstruction clause is too vague. “I’m a bigger obstruction with a baby stroller and a dog,” said New York producer Lisa Guido.
To avoid confusion, NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman and legal director Christopher Dunn sent a letter to MOFTB commissioner Katherine Oliver, asking for an explicit statement that declares “standing on the sidewalk,” in and of itself, does not constitute obstruction. As Cohen explained, “I can easily envision a police officer [saying], ‘No one can walk through you, so you are therefore an obstruction.'”
While the MOFTB is listening to artists and filmmakers’ concerns, associate commissioner Julianne Cho says they must first review all the comments, and then will “determine whether we’re going to publish as is, or revise with comments in mind, or go back to the drawing board.”
But as much as the decision rests with the MOFTB, it’s the NYPD that continually arises as the biggest obstruction to artists’ civil liberties. Says Dunn, “The real issue is the cops, which is always, frankly, the biggest issue. That’s where most photographers and filmmakers encounter real-life problems.”
“Do you think cops will measure the sidewalk to mark how eight feet must be clear?” asked video artist Juliana Luecking at the hearing. “Will they wear [measuring tapes] on their gun belt? Like the first proposal, these regulations give law-enforcement officials the power to prohibit my right to use a camera in public—and shield itself from lawsuits.”