Atlanta to scrap photo ordinance after AJC’s questions

The city of Atlanta says it will repeal an ordinance aimed at “street photographers” — widely condemned by legal experts as unconstitutional — after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a local civil rights lawyer raised questions about the matter.

Several photographers have told the AJC that officers recently have cited the ordinance, which dates back to 1977, in rousting them from public streets near movie sets.

“I thought it was bogus,” said Michael Griffin Jr., who’d been hearing about the ordinance for weeks and feared it would hinder his business. “It was a big shocker to have that happen. We can’t shoot from the sidewalk?”

Stuart Browning said he was run off from a public street near the Fox Theatre this week while “Passengers,” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, filmed there. After he took photos of Pratt walking down a public sidewalk, he said, an Atlanta Police Department officer pulled him aside and informed him of the ordinance.

“I told him that was against the First Amendment and freedom of the press and that I was within my rights,” Browning said. “He told me that, if the picture is for sale, it is a violation and that whatever action (he) took, the city would support him in.”

Fearing arrest, Browning left the scene.

The ordinance, Sec. 30-1316, reads: “It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in the business of taking photographs, intended to be offered for sale, of persons on the streets and sidewalks of the city in front of any place of business other than the person’s own, unless the person shall have secured and have with such person at the time the written consent of the owner or manager of that place of business. The taking of photographs of persons on the streets in front of the place of business of another without the written consent of the other shall be deemed an offense under this section, whether or not a charge is made at the time of taking the photographs, if the photographs are taken for the purpose of sale.”

Legal experts the AJC consulted all said the ordinance was a clear violation of the First Amendment.

“People have the right to film and photograph in public places,” attorney Gerry Weber said. “Any ordinance that outlaws that is unconstitutional.”

Georgia First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer added, “this ordinance will not withstand a court challenge.”

Attorney Daniel Grossman, who successfully sued the city for more than $1 million after the 2009 raid of the Atlanta Eagle Bar, was aghast. Not only is it legal for a person to take photos on a public street, but it also is a federal crime to intentionally interfere with the exercise of a constitutional right, he said.

Ken Allen, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623, said he wasn’t aware of the ordinance and was flabbergasted that an officer would invoke it, because APD recently had training on the rules regarding street photography.

“APD laid out explicitly that we are not to interfere with people doing that,” he said. “It is ludicrous that someone would tell a photographer that information, given the classes we have just gone through.”

A spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed said no one had been arrested or cited for violating the ordinance and refuted the notion that the officer was acting on City Hall orders.

“No one has asked our officers to enforce this law,” said Anne Torres, Reed’s director of communications.

Asked whether the mayor believes the ordinance violated constitutional rights, she said: “The city does not provide public legal analyses.”

After speaking with the AJC about the photo ordinance, Grossman put a call into the city. Shortly thereafter, Reed’s administration and the APD issued a directive indicating that the ordinance “should not be used or referenced as a possible charge.”

Torres said the Reed administration will introduce legislation to repeal it.

“It’s a very good day for the First Amendment,” said Grossman, who also successfully sued the city after a woman was arrested for filming police officers. A consent order filed in March 2012, awarding Felicia Anderson $50,000, ordered the city to conduct mandatory training with police officers regarding citizens’ rights to record police activity.

“It’s always better to do the right thing, and for free, than after a court orders you to,” Grossman said. “I’m thrilled that it worked out this way.”

August Heim, a partner at the Respect Gravity software firm, who photographs celebrities to make extra money, was relieved.

“I’m grateful that this is gone,” said Heim, who also ran up against the ordinance while taking pictures near the “Passengers” set from a public street recently. “My job’s tough enough as it is without having my rights infringed upon.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.