PATCO: Photographers Are Probably Not Terrorists

At least, not according to the DRPA org's website.

In the post-9/11 world we live in, it’s become common for authorities to view folks taking lots of pictures of trains, bridges and tunnels as suspicious—maybe even consider them to be possible terrorists. And so it wasn’t exactly surprising that PATCO (the Delaware River Port Authority subsidiary that shuttles folks back and forth between Philadelphia and South Jersey over the Ben Franklin Bridge) posted the following on its website under the heading What Should I Consider Suspicious?: “Individuals observed 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.”

But now, they’ve taken it down.

On Monday, Buffalo-based attorney Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel to the National Press Photographers Association, sent a letter to Pennsylvania Governor and DRPA Chairman Tom Corbett (copying Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano) stating, “I strongly object to PATCO’s depiction of photography as ‘suspicious’ or somehow being equated to terrorist activities.” Osterreicher points out that photography is covered by the First Amendment, which hasn’t been repealed, no matter how much it sometimes seems that it has.

“Somehow the War on Terrorism has morphed into the War on Photography,” Osterreicher told me this morning. “People are being told that they can’t take pictures of buildings, trains and people in public places. Well, that’s just not correct.”

But doesn’t this vigilance protect Americans? Don’t would-be evildoers scout our bridges, tunnels, and train systems? “There has never been any linkage between people taking pictures and terrorist acts,” Osterreicher claims. (Could he possibly be right about that? Weigh in.) “You can get pictures and locations of things far better on Google Earth than you can with a cell phone camera.”

DRPA spokesperson Tim Ireland confirmed today that they removed the line after receiving Osterreicher’s letter. “Federal security experts have impressed upon us ever since 9/11 that people sketching or photographing is one of the signs of possible terrorist activity,” says Ireland. “But our policy is to allow access to any credentialed news photographer or amateur photographer who wants to take pictures. But that doesn’t mean that one of our police won’t say, ‘What are you doing?’ We just want to make sure we know who’s there, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”

Ah, I get it. So people taking pictures of trains and bridges are indeed still suspicious. We just can’t say so on a website.

UPDATE 1/12/2012 12:20 p.m.: DRPA spokesperson Tim Ireland called to emphasize something he told me in the original interview that did not make it into the piece, which is that while amateur photographers and members of the general public may be stopped and asked who they are, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, credentialed media photographers–the people that Osterreicher’s organizations represents–have never been and will not be going forward. He adds that there has been no change in policy.