Photography Banned in Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland
You're going to want to read the following two paragraphs twice because you're not going to believe them.
"This past Tuesday I went to downtown Silver Spring, had lunch, and then took out my camera and standing on Ellsworth [Drive], I began taking shots of the buildings with the blue sky and clouds as a backdrop. Almost immediately, a security guard approached and told me 'there was no picture taking allowed in Downtown Silver Spring.' 'What do you mean?' I said, 'I am on a city street, in a public place -- taking pictures is a right that I have protected by the first amendment.' The guard told me to report to the management office.
"There, Stacy Horan informed me that Downtown Silver Spring including Ellsworth [Drive] is private property, not a public place, and subject to the rules of the Peterson Companies. They have a no photography policy to 'protect them from people who might want to use the photographs as part of a story in which they could write bad things about us.' And she told me that many of the chain stores in Downtown Silver Spring don't what their 'concepts' to be photographed for security reasons."
It appears that this street, Ellsworth Drive, in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland is, in fact, a private street.
But when you peel back a layer, you find that actually it not pure private property, although the Peterson company is treating the street as private property. This part of downtown Silver Spring was developed using public and private money, and what the Peterson Company claims to be its property is actually owned by Montgomery County, and leased to the Peterson Company. As part of the lease agreement, Peterson has to allow the public to access Ellsworth Drive, which is connected to city-owned streets on either end.
What's happened in Silver Spring, Maryland is an example of what's happening all around the Washington, DC area: Police and security guards are claiming a right to bar photographers where no such law allows them to do that. And when the police and security guards aren't barring photography, they're asking photographers for identification and an explanation -- again without a law permitting them to stop a photographer and ask for identification.
These events spurred Chip Py and Kate Mereand to form a Flickr group promoting photographer rights in Washington, DC, www.flickr.com/groups/dcphotorights. This is group where people can post photographs that "security" has tried to bar, and can discuss issues and problems about photography in the Washington, DC area. I asked Kate Mereand why she founded this group. She said:
"I created DC Photo Rights in response to the numerous instances of harassment local area photographers have cited. I am an amateur photographer who has been shooting for about two years. I have found the DC amateur photographer society, especially through Flickr, to be a very supportive atmosphere. The city itself, however, seems to pose a constant challenge, especially to beginners.
"The specific impetus was a photographer who was harassed for taking photos from the street in downtown Silver Spring, MD. This struck a chord with me. I live and work in Silver Spring, and I have been a supporter of the development projects in the downtown area. These projects have faced some resistance, and I was saddened to hear that the downtown area that I often defend is associated with this sort of behavior.
"I am specifically interested, also, in the role that security guards at federal buildings play in this. Many incorrectly inform photographers that photos are illegal. While this is prevalent with security guards everywhere, I find it more disturbing when federal security guard do this; many people regard there claims of protecting national security interests more seriously. And of course, in a few cases, photos of federal buildings are not allowed. So this often leaves photographers, amateurs especially, on uncertain grounds where easy victims of harassment.
"I think what is chilling now, however, is how often 'national security' and 'terrorist threats' are used as an excuse for illegal harassment and abuse. The most disturbing trend I see is when people are asked to present identification when they are not breaking any laws."
She added, "Often in this situation photographers are made to feel like a perpetrator of a crime, while they are actually the ones being victimized."
When the police ask for ID, they usually write down your information. When you're approached by the police, or even by a private security guard, and quizzed about what you're doing, that can be unnerving and upsetting. Why am I being questioned? What's going to happen next? Might I be arrested if I give the wrong answers?
It's been said time and time again, to the point of becoming cliche: The world changed after 9/11. We have to accept new security restrictions. We have to be cautions, careful, questioning, even suspicious. But being stopped in the street for completely lawful activity is not only un-American, and possibly unlawful itself, but it's likely to be ineffective, even counter productive. Regarding photography as suspicious activity diverts valuable brain power away from thinking about real dangers. Besides, terrorists can photograph sites surreptitiously if they want.
These are the issues that Kate Mereand and Chip Py's DC Photo Rights Flickr group is focusing on.
A protest has been scheduled in Silver Spring on July 4th to draw attention to this issue. Photographers participating in the will be meeting in downtown Silver Spring, and then will walk and snap their cameras. More information about this demonstration can be found here.
Disclosure: I've contributed photos to the DC Photo Rights Flickr group.
Additional reporting on DCist
DC Photo Rights Flickr Group
Photographer rights information page
Marc Fisher's Washington Post column about no photography in Silver Spring
Fox TV story and video about no photography in Silver Spring
Photographers Versus Security Guards in Washington, DC
Update, June 24: I visited downtown Silver Spring on June 23rd and to test a theory about "no photography" rules. My theory is this: "No photography" rules only apply to stand-alone cameras -- cameras that can be seen. If you have a cell phone camera you can snap photos to your heart's content and not be harassed at all. So I took my 3 megapixel Samsung D900 cell phone camera on a stroll through Ellsworth Avenue. Up and down I snapped photo after photo, and as far as anyone was concerned I was just having an extended phone conversation, I even took a close-up of two security guards, whose function is, among other things, to stop photographers.
Update, June 25: You can read the details of the lease agreement that the Peterson Company is bound by here: http://www.freeourstreets.org/2007/06/26/ellsworth-drive-background/.
Update, July 5: About 200 people participated in the July 4th march in Silver Spring for first amendment rights: http://www.nowpublic.com/july_4th_first_amendment_rights_march_silver_spring_maryland.
Update, July 9: A similar incident has occured in Rockville, Maryland, just a few miles away from Ellsworth Drive.