New Jersey Surveillance Bill Pulled Back

DURHAM, NC – The National Press Photographers Association today sent a letter to New Jersey lawmakers opposing New Jersey Senate Bill #330, a proposed law that’s intended to support homeland security and thwart terrorists but one that could, inadvertently, criminalize the simple act of surveying commercial and public facilities, even while someone is acting in the course of their job.

The bill, sponsored by New Jersey state Senators Fred H. Madden Jr. and Stephen M. Sweeney, was put on hold this afternoon when the Senate Law and Public Safety and Veterans’ Affairs Committee pulled it back from consideration, the Asbury Park Press reported.

If passed, the wide-sweeping regulation would have allowed police to detain people who are merely looking at, or making pictures of, various public structures. But it could also apply to journalists doing their jobs, employees monitoring power plants or rail stations and airports, or union inspectors checking for safety violations.

Madden told the Asbury Park Press after the bill was pulled that he intended to remake the legislation. But David Pringle of the state’s Environmental Federation said he believed the bill had no hope of becoming law in any form, the newspaper said.

The New Jersey Press Association joined in with several groups, including NPPA, to oppose the proposal. The New Jersey Work Environment Council issued an urgent action alert to its members, telling them that while the intention of the proposed law might be to thwart terrorists, it would also “criminalize monitoring of workplace safety conditions by workers, monitoring of pollution by plant neighbors, and would prevent journalists from doing their job.”

If the proposal became law with its current wording, environmentalists could be committing a crime if they followed an oil slick in search of its leak of origin, and journalists photographing airplanes departing and arriving from airports for travel or gasoline price or business stories would be breaking the law.

“This proposal is one of a number of misguided attempts to curtail free press and freedom of expression in the name of security,” NPPA president Alicia Wagner Calzada wrote in NPPA’s letter to New Jersey senators. “We have successfully fought all of them because they are, by nature, unconstitutional. Photography, both still and video, is an essential form of speech and a fundamental part of the Constitutional right to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”

NPPA Region 3 director Thomas P. Costello II, of the Asbury Park Press, presented NPPA’s letter today at the Statehouse in Trenton and spoke with one of the bill’s sponsors, who assured Costello that the regulation would not apply to media. “But I emphasized that the media exclusion would probably not be honored in the field” by police enforcing the law, Costello said.

In presenting NPPA’s letter, Costello informed the lawmakers that in its current form the bill would make illegal: “photographing an osprey nesting on a water tower; taking a scenic photo of fishermen on a reservoir; a fish kill in the outflow canal of a nuclear power plant; and airplanes landing and taking off from the Newark airport.”

“These are all photographs that have appeared in my newspaper,” Costello said. “And on top of that, the opening sequence of the television show 'The Sopranos' may be considered illegal photography since it shows oil storage tanks along the New Jersey Turnpike.”

Last year the New York City Transit and the Metropolitan Transit Authority tried to change their rules so that photography and videotaping in subways and bus systems would be prohibited, and a one-year battled ensued between the authorities and press groups, including the NPPA, and backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and other press freedom organizations. After much outcry, New York City and the MTA dropped the proposal.

Today in Calzada’s letter to New Jersey state lawmakers she wrote, “This bill specifically targets photography, videography and ‘collecting information.’ Journalists are in the business of all of the above. The bill would make a crime out of our right and our responsibility to investigate agencies funded with tax dollars. These agencies have an enormous impact on the public health and the public cannot be robbed of its right to monitor them. Imagine if your water company was violating safety procedures and your local newspaper was prohibited from reporting on it.”

“Government agencies would be in the position of denying access if they disapprove of a story, a media outlet or an individual photojournalist. This would effectively enable a government agency to license the media and unfairly influence coverage. Furthermore, news photographers don't have the luxury of advance knowledge of breaking news and would be unable to obtain permission in a timely manner.

“In addition to the constraints that this would place on regular news media, we believe every member of the public should be afforded their constitutional right to freedom of expression, whether verbal or artistic.

“Our constitutional rights are an essential part of our society, and we should not allow our enemies to frighten us into curtailing these rights. We do not believe that making allowances for the media would eliminate the chilling effect of this proposed law.

“In the age of hidden cameras, camera phones and unlimited photos available online, those who are intending to cause harm will find a way to get the pictures they need. This bill will only hurt legitimate members of the media and members of the public.”