NYC New Camera Rules Would Swat Shutterbugs' Free Speech, Opponents Say

Civil liberties advocates are gearing up for a potential court fight over proposed rules that would force filmmakers and photographers to get a permit and a $1 million insurance policy to use cameras in public places.

New regulations drafted by the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting would require a permit for any type of filming or photography that involved "an interaction among two or more people at a single site for 30 or more minutes."

Permits would also be required for five or more people using a tripod for more than 10 minutes.

Those rules would be nothing new for the professional crews that film regularly in the city; they have long been required to get a permit and insurance to block off streets and sidewalks.

But critics say the proposed rules would affect an entirely new class of shooters: fashion and wedding photographers, independent journalists doing street interviews, and amateurs making videos to post online.

The city's most ubiquitous shutterbugs — tourists — probably wouldn't be affected, although they too might violate the letter of the law if they took elaborately staged pictures in one spot for long enough.

The New York Civil Liberties Union is prepared to take action against the regulations in court if they're enacted without revision, said one of the organization's lawyers, Christopher Dunn.

"There is no way that they should be requiring permits for people using handheld cameras," Dunn said. "It would give the police license to stop virtually anyone, and that opens the door to harassment."

Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Livingston called the proposal "draconian," and a betrayal of the city's long history of nurturing budding talent.

"Think of that young artist who is going to be hurried along by some cop, who has no choice but to follow regulations," she said. "I would hate to see film students thinking that any time they make an image, it has to be sanctioned by the government."

City officials insist the rules aren't an attempt to squash free speech.

People unable to afford liability insurance, which could cost between $500 and $1,000 for even the smallest of photo shoots, could apply to the city for a waiver.

Journalists with a press pass issued by the police department would be exempt. So would anyone using handheld equipment to film a parade, rally or political demonstration.

Julianne Cho, associate commissioner of the film office, said the city's only intention was to help directors and producers get safe access to great locations, while ensuring that production didn't obstruct traffic or interfere with New Yorkers' lives.

The city is accepting public comment until Friday on the proposed rules and could still make changes. "We're going to continue to accept comments, and look at them very closely," Cho said.

When it comes to professional filmmaking, New York has long been viewed as a friendly city, but since the Sept. 11 attacks, photographers of all types have increasingly complained about harassment.

D. Bruce Yolton, an amateur nature photographer, said he was run off by a police officer last spring for trying to take pictures of a hawk nesting on the Triborough Bridge.

Things will only get worse under the new rules, he said. He wondered whether the regulations would result in officers cracking down on groups of amateur bird watchers gathering to stake out wildlife.

"There is no way for me to apply for a permit," he said. "For one thing, I never know where the bird is going to be."

The film office drafted the proposed rules earlier this year as a result of a lawsuit involving an independent filmmaker detained for using a handheld video camera in midtown Manhattan.

Rakesh Sharma, the Indian director of the awarding-winning 2003 documentary "Final Solution," was told he needed a permit to record images of the MetLife building near Grand Central Terminal, even if he had no crew and no equipment besides his camera.

The NYCLU sued, arguing, in part, that the city had never properly enacted regulations governing film permits. That case was settled and the film office agreed to formalize its rules.