The MBTA and the First Amendment

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By Dan Kennedy

Now that the MBTA has fired a trolley driver because a passenger photographed him letting two kids take the wheel, do you suppose the T will reconsider its unofficial prohibition on allowing people to take pictures?

Marie Szaniszlo reports in the Boston Herald today that the unidentified Green Line driver was photographed while his young son and nephew were playing with the controls. The photos were taken by Michael Critz, who posted them on Craigslist. “I don’t take any joy in the firing of the driver,” Critz is quoted as saying.

No mention in the Herald story of the photo ban, but it’s well-known to local photographers. In 2006, I gave a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award to the T for its ridiculous policy, which is supposedly aimed at thwarting terrorists.

“The practice is inconsistently employed, does nothing to address surreptitious or long distance photographs of the same sites, and restricts the rights of law-abiding persons,” wrote John Reinstein, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, and Jonathan Albano, a prominent First Amendment lawyer, in a letter to the T several years ago. Reinstein and Albano further argued that the ban violates both the federal and state constitutions.

Even though the T supposedly softened its policy (PDF) in 2007, its employees continue to enforce the old rules. Only yesterday, Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub linked to some T photos taken by Carolyn Serrano, who writes on her Flickr page:

I actually got in trouble taking this photo! I was leaning against the pole to brace myself as I took this shot (imagine, no flash in a dim setting…that’s a couple secs that I needed to stay absolutely still which is super hard for me!) and on the speakers they were making announcements about how photos were not allowed. I disregarded it, thinking no way were they talking about me. But they kept on re-iterating it and stopped only when I put my camera away!

The MBTA is our property, paid for with our tax dollars and fare money. Despite the no-photo policy, there are 7,391 photos on Flickr tagged with “mbta” right now. So not only is the policy a violation of the First Amendment, but it’s not working. It’s time for T general manager Dan Grabauskas repeal this misguided assault on our free-speech rights.

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2 Responses to “The MBTA and the First Amendment”

  1. Giselle Says:

    Those who think it’s just fine to give unfettered access to absolutely anyone to take countless photographs of critical transportation infrastructure just don’t get it. And of course, these are the same people who will whine that more steps should have been take to prevent a terrorist attack or something similar. Get a clue folks

  2. Dan Kennedy Says:

    Ben Franklin put it best: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

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