Moving away from Lower Greenville last summer, longtime neighborhood activist Avi Adelman could have turned over a new leaf. The camera he used to shove in the faces of drunk teenagers and public urinators could have been stowed in his closet. He could have quietly pulled the plug on Barkingdogs.org and traded the life of a semi-professional activist/troll for one of monk-like solitude on the leafy streets of Junius Heights.
He didn't. Adelman isn't really cut out for serene contemplation. And though his new digs are far from the strip of bars and restaurants dedicated himself to patrolling, the move has given him the freedom to lock on to other targets. Like Dallas Area Rapid Transit.
For the past two months, Adelman has been battling the transit agency over its photo policies. The dispute started on the morning of March 1, when Adelman arrived to photograph the aftermath of a fatal train/car collision at 2nd Avenue and Scyene Road in South Dallas.
Adelman was told to join the gaggle of TV cameras in the designated media area, a small rectangle of concrete along the DART right-of-way that Adelman says provided a poor view of rescue efforts. Instead, Adelman headed for a body shop across the street. He was met there by a DART cop, who ordered police tape stretched across the entrance. Still refusing commands to go to the media area, he continued snapping photos from sidewalks and the median on Scyene Road.
Four days later, Adelman filed a formal complaint with DART, claiming that its officers had interfered with his First Amendment rights by attempting to stop him from taking photographs. DART summarily dismissed his claims and accused Adelman of jeopardizing public safety.
An excerpt from DART's findings, detailed in a March 20 report to Police Chief J.D. Spiller:
The scene involved in a fatality and officers must stay alert and in control of the entire scene for public safety and maintain the utmost respect for the victim and their family. The accident scene was located in a high traffic area and trains were still single tracking as more and more people arrived to the scene to observe which elevated the risk to all involved. Adelman admits in his complaint that he strongdid not obey verbal commands from teh officers at the scene, to stay back at the designated safe media area and therefore distracted the public safety officials which escalated the risk to all public safety personnel and himself.
That reasoning predictably struck Adelman as bullshit. So he engaged the National Press Photographers Association, whose lawyer, Mickey Osterreicher, fired off a letter supporting Adelman's right to photograph and offering to help train the agency on the finer points of the First Amendment.
"While the press may have no greater right of access than the public, they have no less right either," he said. "It is one thing to establish a perimeter for public safety and evidence retention. It is quite another to set up artificial barriers for no other purpose than to keep the press at bay while allowing the general public to wander freely just beyond the crime scene tape."
That failed to sway Spiller, who this week wrote Adelman a letter affirming the agency's initial take, which is that officers had demonstrated no "malicious intent" and had done nothing wrong.
"[M[y conclusion is that you were not prohibited from photographing the accident scene as evidenced by the photographs submitted with your complaint."
But Adelman's crusade against DART -- which he assures us is going to continue -- hasn't been a total loss, as he and Osterreicher have managed to wring a smaller concession from DART. No longer will the agency enforce a "no photo" policy at the CityPlace and Convention Center light rail stations, according to Spiller's letter. It might even take down the no-photo signs.
Osterreicher, who's based in Buffalo, says DART's no-photo policy appears to be illegal for two reasons. One is that it was apparently put in place by the agency without going through the proper rule-making process, which would have included a public-comment period and other measures of transparency. Second, Osterreicher says, it wouldn't pass constitutional muster because DART could offer no legally justifiable reason to keep people from taking photos.
Quizzed by Adelman, DART spokesman Morgan Lyons wrote in an email that the no-photo policy has been in place for more than a decade and was put in place at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security or the TSA.
"I hear this all the time," Osterreicher says. "'Sorry, you can't take any pictures here. You remember 9/11?'"
Give it much thought, however, and the "because terrorists" explanation falls apart. As part of the training course the NPPA offers to law enforcement agencies, Osterreicher shows a photo of the White House that could be taken by poking a camera through the front gate. Then, he shows an aerial image of the White House pulled from Google Earth, which, with its clear picture of the grounds and surrounding buildings, would be infinitely more useful for someone planning an attack.
"I use it as an example of how stupid it is to be saying 'No, you can't be taking pictures of this building, you can't be taking pictures of that, it's Homeland Security.' It's nonsense."
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SHOW ME HOW
Adelman wrote us last night to say that the lifting of the photography ban hasn't gotten through to the rank-and-file. Last night, hours after receiving the letter from Spiller, he hopped on the train and started snapping photos at CityPlace. A couple shots in, the disembodied voice of a surveillance camera-watching security officer boomed across the PA system and told him to stop. Adelman ignored the voice and kept taking pictures.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.