MTA chief repudiates photographer curbs
The head of the Maryland Transit Administration flatly repudiated Wednesday the efforts by some of the agency's police officers to forbid photographers from shooting pictures of MTA equipment or from MTA property, vowing to settle all the issues raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland before a lawsuit can be filed.
Agency Administrator Ralign T. Wells said MTA officers were not properly representing MTA policy when they ordered two amateur photographers to stop taking pictures and video of light rail trains earlier this year. Wells said he would apologize to the photographers and take steps to make sure that officers respect the First Amendment rights of photographers.
"We don't have a policy restricting photography," Wells said. "The actions of some of these officers are not reflective of the agency stance."
The MTA chief offered an explanation, but not an excuse, for why transit police officers ordered Olev Taremae of Bethlehem, Pa., and Christopher Fussell of Portland, Ore., to stop taking pictures and video in two separate incidents in February and March.
"There's just a high sensitivity post-9/11 to photographers. We obviously have to back off of that," he said.
The ACLU told MTA Transit Police Chief John E. Gavrilis in a letter Tuesday that it would file a lawsuit over his officers actions in the two incidents if the agency did not make amends to its clients and issue a new policy upholding the rights of photographers. The group gave the MTA until Sept. 1 to make those changes of face legal action.
Wells told The Sun his agency would settle its issues with the ACLU without any need for litigation.
"We're going to work with the ACLU on any of their concerns," he said. "In no way are we battling the ACLU on this. We are in complete agreement with them on this."
Wells pointed to a posted policy on the MTA web site that states: "A permit is not required for non-commercial, personal-use filming or photography by the general public that does not interfere with transit operations or safety."
However, the day before, an MTA spokesman seemed unaware of the policy and pointed a reporter to language emphasizing a need to seek a permit before taking pictures at or of MTA property.
The MTA is the latest of many transportation agencies across the country that have been forced to back down from formal or informal curbs on photography in the aftermath of 9/11.
Wells said the policy allowing photography had been restated to officers in February and March. He said the ACLU letter and a Sun article Wednesday about the controversy would be brought up at roll calls Wednesday and throughout the week.
Wells said MTA officers may approach a photographer and ask to voluntarily produce identification.
The MTA chief said officers who are found to have misstated Maryland law or MTA policy in exchanges with photographers could be subject to "administrative" discipline.
"The chief is very aggressive with taking administrative action with employees who are not in line with our procedures and rules and regulations," Wells said.