Opinion: Friday, December 31, 2004

Ban on subway photos a study in foolishness (NY-MTA)
Be Our Guest
By TODD MAISEL

In May, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority barred photography on the transit system except by "accredited New York City media," claiming it would deter terrorists. After a firestorm of criticism from groups who recognized this as censorship, the MTA promised to introduce a less stringent version of its rule.

Instead, it brought back the old rule, during Thanksgiving, allowing public comment until Jan. 10.

The MTA says the rule, which can result in arrest and fine, is NYPD-advised. But Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, a former newsman himself, says the NYPD did not recommend the camera ban. Instead, it advised the MTA to ban photography in tunnels and control rooms, areas already off-limits.

The MTA insists the rule is part of security initiatives. But does a terrorist need a picture to know that Grand Central Terminal is crowded at rush hour? Did the terrorists in Spain need a photo to know a bomb on a crowded train would kill scores?

So who will be affected? Tourists from around the world marvel at our transit system, but they will risk arrest if they photograph it. Mayor Bloomberg and Cristyne Nicholas, head of NYC & Co., oppose the ban as unfair and damaging to tourism.

Young photojournalism students would be arrested. Transit buffs would become criminals. Straphangers using cell phones with built-in cameras could be arrested.

While the rule exempts New York City media, it bans out-of-town journalists from as close as New Jersey and Westchester County. And just because the local media will have this exemption doesn't mean that every cop out of the academy will know the rule. Many still don't understand that their own regulations restrict them from censoring photographers, and some cops believe they must dictate what the media see at crime or disaster scenes.

The rule is a slippery slope that will result in further censorship. There are already far too many people who believe anyone with a camera is a potential terrorist.

There isn't any convincing evidence that terrorists are taking photos of our trains. A few months ago, an Iranian national was deported after he was seen photographing city landmarks. If he was providing photos for terrorists, does that mean we should now prevent photography of all landmarks? That would be ludicrous and unconstitutional.

The MTA must recognize that this rule erodes freedoms and runs counter to the First Amendment. It surrenders to terrorist goals by curtailing our freedom.

Maisel is associate director of the National Press Photographers, Region 2, secretary of the New York Press Photographers Association and a Daily News staff photographer.

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