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Independent Artists Lead Fight Against Proposed New York City Regulations Limiting Filming, Photography in Public Places

StoryAugust 02, 2007
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The Mayor’s office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting is considering new permit and insurance regulations for photographers and filmmakers that would radically undermine the First Amendment right to photograph and film in public places. If passed they would have harsh consequences for independent and low-budget photographers, filmmakers, journalists, artists, students, tourists, amateurs, and really, anyone with a still or video camera and a sense of curiosity about New York City. We’re joined by three guests: Beka Economopoulos from the coalition Picture New York, Christopher Dunn from the New York Civil Liberties Union, and independent filmmaker Jem Cohen. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to New York City, the most photographed city in the world. The Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting is considering new permit and insurance regulations for photographers and filmmakers that would radically undermine the First Amendment right to photograph and film in public places.

Over two months ago, the Mayor’s Office quietly proposed a new set of rules that went largely unnoticed until a few weeks ago. If passed, they would have harsh consequences for independent and low-budget photographers, filmmakers, journalists, artists, students, tourists, amateurs, and really anyone with a still or video camera and a sense of curiosity about New York.

Under the new rules, any filming or photography involving “an interaction among two or more people at a single site for thirty or more minutes, including all set up and breakdown time” would have to obtain a permit and $1 million in insurance. The permit and insurance regulations would also apply to any “interaction among five or more people” using a tripod for more than 10 minutes at a single location.

The New York Civil Liberties Union described these two requirements as “unreasonable, unlawful, and unenforceable” and urged the Mayor’s Office to eliminate them. After pressure from the NYCLU, Julianne Cho, the assistant commissioner at the Mayor’s Office, agreed to extend the period for public comment on these rules until tomorrow — that’s Friday, August 3rd.

We’ll be joined by three vocal opponents of these new rules, but first I want to play a clip from a short film made by Juliana Luecking in response to the proposed regulations. It’s called Wait, What? Get a Permit to Make a Video?

JULIANA LUECKING: My name is Juliana Luecking, aka Queen Juliana, and I do interviews with people on the streets of New York City. But, there is this proposed regulation that the Mayor’s Office and the police, I guess, have kind of figured out, where people like me could only videotape in one location, one spot, for 30 minutes.

Now, that’s a problem because, you know, when you shoot video, you shoot a lot, and then, you know, every once in a while somebody says something amazing and that’s the piece that you want — or the piece that I want, anyway — to like put up on the web and stuff. So if there is a 30-minute limit, I believe that just might qualify as a limit on freedom of speech.

I just don’t get it. Like, look at all these interesting people. I mean, and look at all these questions that I have, that I want to ask them. You know, it’s like, human beings are curious. We get to, like, you know, be by a basketball court for an hour or so and ask people what they’re thinking. I mean, don’t we?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It’s so many people’s art form. And, I mean, for that, I don’t think — I mean, it’s just — it’s not a First Amendment, like, right that they should be able to do this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It’s just wrong. It’s just wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from Juliana Luecking’s short video about the new regulations on film and photography proposed by the New York City Mayor’s Office on Film, Theater, and Broadcasting. Juliana is among the many concerned artists, photographers, filmmakers, who came together last month to form an ad hoc coalition called Picture New York and launched a campaign to oppose the proposed rules. Within a week, over 16,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the Mayor’s Office to dismiss these regulations and hold a public hearing.

Today, we’re joined in the firehouse studio by Beka Economopoulos from Picture New York, Christopher Dunn from the New York Civil Liberties Union and independent New York-based filmmaker and Picture New York member Jem Cohen. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

Beka, you were out this weekend, part of the protest of Picture New York. Explain.

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: This Friday we had a First Amendment rally at Union Square, and there were about 450 people there who were out to voice opposition to these proposed regulations. It was packed with props of cardboard Bolex cameras and real video cameras and still images, as well, so that people could document dissent, which is something that we hope to safeguard in New York City and across the country. Not only that, the ability to document anything in this city has historically been accessible to us, and if these regulations were to pass as is, it would be difficult to be an art maker or a documentarian in this city.

AMY GOODMAN: How did these regulations — who shaped them? Who formed them, Jem?

JEM COHEN: Well, the regulations came out of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and — what is it? — Broadcasting. I think, to some degree, there’s a back story, which Chris Dunn could probably fill in, involving an award-winning Indian documentary filmmaker. And his case in some ways instigated these regulations. But I think, on a more important level, it’s not really about what instigated them. It’s the fact that they appeared and might well have gone through. And there seems to be a strange lack of concern in that process, both for the constitutional issue and for the actual ramifications that it would have for filmmakers.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about what exactly the regulations are. Ten minutes, what have you got, Chris Dunn, New York Civil Liberties Union?

CHRISTOPHER DUNN: It’s a very straightforward rule: If you are using a handheld device, camera, still camera or video camera, and you’re with at least one other person, in any form of interaction, in a single location for more than 30 minutes, under the rules, you’d have to get a permit and you’d have to get a million dollars of insurance. In addition —

AMY GOODMAN: If you’re just hanging out on the sidewalk videoing.

CHRISTOPHER DUNN: You’re hanging out on the sidewalk, whether it’s the sidewalk in front of your home, Times Square, Ground Zero, standing in line in the Empire State Building, you would have to get a permit and insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: If you’re an independent reporter who’s there, and you’re covering, say, the Republican convention and you’re covering the police interaction with the protesters, they could arrest you for not having a million dollars in insurance?

CHRISTOPHER DUNN: They could arrest you for not having a million dollars of insurance, that’s correct. Basically, this opens the door to unlimited police interactions with photographers and filmmakers, because under these proposed rules, if they were passed, basically everyone with a camera, including everyone with a cellphone, would be someone who might have to have a permit to do photography. And you can just envision the sort of interactions that are going to take place.

In addition, the rules provide that if you’re going to have a single tripod, one tripod, you get 10 minutes if you have five people. After that, you have to have a permit, you have to have insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten minutes.


AMY GOODMAN: Including setting up and breaking down?

CHRISTOPHER DUNN: Yes, in the kind of inimitable MOFTB language, including all setup and breakdown time. So that’s probably about two minutes to take your shot.

AMY GOODMAN: And this came about, because what happened? A case that you represented?

CHRISTOPHER DUNN: This came about because we represented an Indian documentary filmmaker who was arrested for filming on a city sidewalk and then was denied a permit because he did not have a million dollars of insurance. And we sued the MOFTB. We negotiated about these rules for probably a year. We told them that these rules made no sense. They insisted on proceeding with it, and now they are getting what they deserve, which is this enormous public reaction to these insane rules.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the police can decide how they want to enforce this.

CHRISTOPHER DUNN: Well, absolutely. The fact of the matter is, with all the people out there with cameras, most people are going to be left alone. This is going to give the police license to stop people they want to stop for whatever reason they want. And you can imagine who the likely targets are of that sort of enforcement.


CHRISTOPHER DUNN: People with dark skin, people who look suspicious in the eyes of the police. It’s not going to be you and me. It’s going to be the people who tend to be harassed by the police in other contexts.

AMY GOODMAN: Beka Economopoulos, how are you organizing now?

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: We formed an ad hoc coalition called Picture New York just about 10 days ago. Already we have 19,000 signatures on an online petition. We’ve put out a call for people to create video public comments, and a lot of people are submitting them on YouTube. We had the rally and demonstration, and we’re encouraging other people to submit public comments and to speak out, to blog this, to put it on their MySpace and Facebook. So we’ve had both an online and offline campaign that’s been quite robust thus far and have been really heartened by the degree and breadth of public response, which I think really speaks to how concerned people are about this and about it being a part of a broader continuum of attacks on our civil liberties.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute, but, Chris, what could be the city’s next steps? What is going to happen in the next month with the Mayor’s Office of Film, Television, and Broadcasting?

CHRISTOPHER DUNN: Well, I think that given the enormous public response and given what the city has been telling me, I think it is likely they will withdraw the rules. The real question is whether or not they are going to amend them and publish formal rules or whether they’re going to reopen the process entirely. Picture New York and we both have said to the city, “Start over, withdraw the rules, have public hearings.” That’s what should happen. I think in the next week we are going to know if they’re going to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the period for public input is ending tomorrow?

CHRISTOPHER DUNN: The formal public comment period ends tomorrow, August 3rd.

AMY GOODMAN: Jem Cohen, final words.

JEM COHEN: Well, I would just like people to think back about the tradition of New York street photography. It’s a tradition that’s very much integral to the city. And thinking back to the images that they’ve loved, people like Walker Evans or Lewis Hine or Garry Winogrand or Helen Levitt, and that’s a tradition based on spontaneity. That spontaneity is not really separable from the art form itself. And these regulations, in attempting to form a framework that isn’t really about public safety, would really be endangering an art form that is so much a part of New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, you’re having a rally, Beka Economopoulos?

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: There’s a rally at Union Square at 11:30, a lunchtime shoot out. People are encouraged to bring their cameras. And I also want to encourage everybody listening and watching to go to picturenewyork.org, and you can get involved in the campaign there.

AMY GOODMAN: Beka Economopoulos and Jem Cohen, I want to thank you very much. Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union, thanks for joining us.

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