New York finally sets lensing rules

Mayor's Office, NYCLU agree on permit process

The rules are finally in, more than a year after the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting first submitted a proposed list of regs for obtaining Gotham lensing permits. A final draft has been agreed upon by the Mayor’s Office and the New York Civil Liberties Union, among a host of others.

The rules have been published in the City Record, making them official city policy as of today, coming into effect Aug. 13, after decades of no official policy.

The sometimes tense process, which started out with a lawsuit against the Mayor’s Office and the NYPD three years ago, turned into a mudslinging extravaganza when the Mayor’s Office quietly put out the first draft of the rules in May 2007. It was the first time any official rules had been set forth regarding shooting permits, and the draft was very rough. After all, prior to the lawsuit the suitability of a photographer to do his job was essentially at the discretion of the police.

But after the Mayor’s Office took their first stab at codifying new rules (a condition of their dismissal from the suit), nobody who owned a camera was pleased with the broadly worded result, which could be interpreted to require a million dollars in insurance to photograph the Statue of Liberty with a disposable camera. An ad hoc group of protesters calling themselves Picture New York materialized and began decrying the rules during the official comment period.

It’s mostly a service org, so the Mayor’s Office doesn’t usually deal with criticism this severe. But since the lawsuit — which dealt with police officers who, under the old system, allegedly broke an Indian photog’s camera — had linked the Mayor’s Office with the NYPD, visions of Commissioner Katherine Oliver snapping telephoto lenses over her knee danced in many a director’s head.

Michael Vitti, a filmmaker who participated in the drafting of the new rules, observed that the Mayor’s Office “was suffering from some really bad PR. I think they were working with the NYPD in a positive fashion.”

Vitti said the problem won’t be agreeing on new regulations — with which most interested parties seem happy — but making sure that the police can both accord filmmakers their First Amendment rights and maintain public safety around a shoot that, for example, attracts an unsafe number of rubberneckers.

Picture New York wasn’t available for comment, but the org expressed optimism over the first redraft of the rules earlier this year, and objected mainly to the definition of the term “obstruction,” which has been more clearly defined in the new draft. Among other changes from the initial proposal, the final version of the rules allows the use of handheld cameras of all types, tripods and public walkways within meticulously specified limits.

Jem Cohen, a founding member of the org, said that while he couldn’t speak for Picture New York, he was “pretty damn excited.”

“It seems to be increasingly rare that people have their say to the government, and the government listens,” Cohen opined. “I have to commend the Mayor’s Office for taking those voices into account.”

At last, our long, local nightmare is over.

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