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New Jersey transit system labels photography "suspicious"

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A photojournalist advocacy group wants a New Jersey-based transit system to reconsider its policy asking riders to report any photography…

A photojournalist advocacy group wants a New Jersey-based transit system to reconsider its policy asking riders to report any photography involving trains or stations to authorities as "suspicious activity."

The National Press Photographers Association has sent a letter to the Delaware River Port Authority objecting to the inclusion of photography on a list of suspicious activities found on the Port Authority Transit Corporation’s (PATCO) website.

PATCO, a part of the Delaware River Port Authority that provides transit services between Philadelphia and Camden County, New Jersey, states under a tab titled "What Should I Consider Suspicious?" that persons filming or photographing “passing trains, locomotives, freight cars, passenger cars, rail yard operations, tracks, bridges, tunnels, commuter rail trains, subway trains, transit trains, stations and platforms” should be reported to authorities.

“To have these things out there, in particular — there has never been a correlation between photography and terrorism attacks,” said Mickey Osterreicher, NPPA general counsel. “To somehow create this climate where anyone taking a picture is suspicious is not where the First Amendment and free expression lie.”

PATCO spokesman Ed Kasuba said a company attorney was reviewing the letter and would respond as soon as possible. U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Ed Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, were also copied in the letter.

The suspicious activity reporting policy followed by federal departments including Homeland Security and Defense classifies photography as suspect if photography is of or relates to security personnel and equipment or underutilized access areas. Osterreicher said suspicious activity involved more than a few pictures of trains and stations.

“Truly, to have probable cause and reasonable suspicion, a person has to be walking around all day, taking photographs and notes of the structures," he said. "In this case, the mere fact of taking a picture does not level reasonable suspicion or probable cause."

Osterreicher said though the PATCO classification is not unusual and there has been an increase in recent years in the arrest and detainment of photographers, many public places do not completely limit photography and provide guidelines to better demonstrate what is and is not allowed.

AMTRACK, whose guidelines were developed in conjunction with the NPPA, provides a list of areas on its website where photography is restricted. It also specifically states that photography and filming are allowed in public areas by ticketed passengers, news media and commercial interests with special permission.

Similarly, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) prohibits photography and filming in areas that are not open to the public. However, SEPTA also specifically addresses the issue of terrorism and its relation to photography in its guidelines.

“SEPTA Transit Police and other law enforcement are under orders to question anyone taking photographs or sketching transit facilities,” the website states. “Obviously, these activities are almost always legitimate and that is the end of the issue. However, anyone conducting these activities in unauthorized areas of SEPTA property may be charged and detained for further investigation.”