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Shutterbugs beware

(The following story by Tom Hester Jr. appeared on the Trenton Times website on May 20.)

TRENTON, N.J. -- Impromptu photography is a lifeblood for railroad enthusiasts and for those who work in the transportation industry, but NJ Transit is trying to put a stop to it, claiming that for security reasons it has the right to control whether people take photos of its property.

The mass transit agency's policy has raised civil liberty concerns among rail enthusiasts and an expert in photography rights.

"There's no legal authority for anyone, including government, to prohibit photography of just about anything in public view," said Bert P. Krages, an attorney from Portland, Ore., who specializes in photographer's rights.

Although the agency hasn't publicized it, a policy was implemented at least as far back as 2000 that requires permits for people taking photos of agency property, according to NJ Transit spokeswoman Janet Hines.

The free permits can be obtained from the agency's real estate division, and it usually takes a day to obtain one after an application, which can be faxed or e-mailed, is completed, Hines said.

The agency, she said, fears people taking photographs of trains, railroad structures and other equipment may not always be train buffs, especially after the March 11 train bombings in Spain and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, although the policy was put into effect before both events.

"Things have obviously changed very much in the way we secure our system," Hines said. "This is one of those things where our goal is to make sure our passengers are safe, our employees are safe and to protect our infrastructure."

Hines didn't know if NJ Transit police had issued any summonses or confiscated anyone's cameras and film for not obtaining a permit.

Railroad buffs said the policy has especially become troublesome after the River Line light-rail system began operating this spring between Camden and Trenton, attracting people with cameras to take photographs of the sleek, shiny new trains.

"This is obviously cause for concern," said railroad enthusiast Douglas John Bowen, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers.

Lyndon Henry works as a transportation planner and data analyst for the Capitol Metro mass transit system in Austin, Texas, and as a consultant to www.lightrailnow.org. He said NJ Transit's policy is a "huge concern" to people working in the public transit profession "since much of our work depends upon the use of photos to inform the public about rail transit issues."

"NJ Transit seems to be taking a pretty extreme attitude," Henry said.

Bowen and Henry said forcing people to get a permit to take photographs creates so much bureaucracy it makes it nearly impossible for people either visiting or using NJ Transit services to take spur-of-the-moment photographs.

"You don't have to be a civil libertarian on the fringe to be concerned about stuff like this," Bowen said.

Henry, in an e-mail, wrote, "The ban on photography, using the pretext of the war on terrorism, invokes serious civil liberties and free speech concern. Furthermore, it threatens the traditional ongoing historic documentation of rail transit operations."

Krages, who authored a pamphlet on photography rights, said NJ Transit's policy is just the latest attempt to restrict photography, citing incidents at industrial plants, bridges and sea vessels across the nation since the terror attacks.

Such restrictions, he said, "aren't really rooted in real-life events."

Krages said he knew of no terrorist event or crime that has relied upon photographs to be carried out. He likened amateur photographers to a "neighborhood watch" that works with police to prevent crime.

"From my perspective, I don't think public photography presents any type of risk and can actually be beneficial in improving security," Krages said.

NJ Transit should welcome photographers, Bowen said. "They're going to be the ones to see something suspicious," he said.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

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