NYC sued over right to shoot video, pictures in public

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the city yesterday, challenging restrictions on people's right to photograph public places after an award-winning filmmaker from India was blocked from videotaping near the MetLife building.

In its lawsuit, the civil rights group highlighted the plight of Rakesh Sharma, who said he was left feeling ashamed and humiliated when he was detained in May 2005 after police saw him use a hand-held video camera on a public street in midtown Manhattan.

Sharma was taping background footage for a documentary examining changes in the lives of ordinary people such as taxi drivers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He was told he needed a permit to film on city streets, then was denied one without explanation when he applied to the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, the lawsuit said. It alleged his constitutional rights were violated.

It said he would like to resume filming but fears further police detention and harassment.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration letting Sharma film in public places and compensatory damages for his May encounter with police.

Gabriel Taussig, chief of the city's administrative law division, said the city had not received the lawsuit but would evaluate it thoroughly.

“Obviously, in this day and age, it's a high priority of New York City to ensure safety on its public streets,” he said in a statement.

The NYCLU has received other complaints about people being harassed for taking pictures in public places, Executive Director Donna Lieberman said.

“The NYCLU is deeply concerned about what this says about the state of our democracy,” she said. “The streets of Manhattan are public spaces, and the public has a right not only to be on the street but to take pictures on the street. Nobody should risk arrest to take out his camera or video camera.”

The interference by police was not the first time Sharma has encountered resistance to his work.

State censors in India have banned his award-winning 2003 documentary, “Final Solution,” saying it might trigger unrest. It shows the 2002 religious rioting in the western Indian state of Gujarat, which killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. The Hindu-Muslim mayhem began when a Muslim mob set ablaze a train carrying Hindu activists in Godhra, killing nearly 60 passengers.

The NYCLU lawsuit said Sharma's documentaries rely on candid footage of people, places and events, as he does not use actors, sets or crews.

It described Sharma as a conscientious, law-abiding resident of Bombay, India, who had never been arrested or detained by law enforcement officials before his New York experience.

Last May, Sharma was approached by police after he shot footage of traffic emerging from an underpass near Grand Central Terminal for about half an hour, the lawsuit said.

An officer asked him why he was filming the MetLife building, which sits atop the underpass, and he explained he was filming traffic and had only tilted his camera up to capture sunlight hitting buildings, the lawsuit said.

The officer then told him he thought it was suspicious that he was filming a “sensitive building,” formerly the Pan Am building, for 30 minutes and that further investigation was necessary, the lawsuit said.

Sharma said he felt stunned and scared after he turned the camera on to show officers what his filming looked like, only to have one of them charge at him, shove him in the chest and grab the camera.

He said he felt ashamed and humiliated when he was kept on the street for about two hours as hundreds of people passed by or gathered to stare. Detectives later apologized after taking him to a police precinct, searching his camera and then returning it scratched and cracked, the lawsuit said.

Security officials have said that preparations for terrorist attacks against sizable buildings and other places may include videotaping for the purpose of studying approaches to the target.

In May 2005, New York police and transit officials abandoned a proposal to ban cameras in subways to prevent terrorism.

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