Permission No Longer Needed for Photography

By Mariana Minaya
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007

The developer of downtown Silver Spring has backed off its policy of forbidding photography in the area without its explicit permission, but local photo enthusiasts are not satisfied.

A debate over the protection of civil liberties in public-private partnerships ignited when a security guard stopped amateur photographer Chip Py two weeks ago as he took pictures on Ellsworth Drive, a part of downtown developed by PFA Silver Spring LLC.

Py and other photography enthusiasts reacted in outrage that a developer could control who took pictures in an place renovated with millions of county dollars.

"The issue that's been burning up the minds and hearts of people has been: This is public money, and now it's being run like a company," Py said.

In response, the development company decided Thursday to amend its policy so prior permission to shoot photographs or videos is no longer required -- unless there is a large setup for things such as "a news broadcast that might get in the way," said I.J. Hudson of Garson Claxton, the Bethesda-based law firm working with the developers, who are reserving the right to modify their policy.

"The policy reflects the concerns of the patrons and tenants and photographers," Hudson said. "We think we responded very quickly to their concerns."

But the developers are "missing the point," Py said. The issue has taken on a scope greater than photography. The question, he said, is whether a developer has the right to impose its rules in an area that looks and feels like a public street.

"Where do your rights end, and which rights are they going to selectively allow?" asked Wayan Vota, a writer for Metroblogging D.C. "Should they put up a sign that says 'Your rights end here'?"

Vota is among the bloggers and photo rights groups organizing a Fourth of July "photo walk" protest with people taking pictures on Ellsworth Drive -- the same day the developer plans to hold a picture contest with a banner welcoming photographers and offering prizes.

"Currently, they're allowing photography when they feel like it and how they want it to happen," Vota said. "That's not photography consistent with First Amendment rights."

After Py contacted the Montgomery County Council, member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) took up the matter with the developer. "You're not supposed to need permission to exercise your rights," Elrich said.

Py hopes the discussion will prompt government officials to protect the public.

"What I would like to see from all of this is, when all these public-private partnerships proceed . . . that our elected officials stand up and say, 'If we give you this public money, we expect this to be public space,' " he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company