Photos, Public Space, and the 1st Amendment

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This interview will be on “St. Louis on the Air” at noon Tuesday. This story will be updated after the show. Listen live.

On a recent Saturday, local high school teacher Tony Nipert got off a MetroLink train at Central West End station while enjoying one of his favorite pastimes: exploring St. Louis. As he got off the train, he decided to take a quick shot of the train heading downtown and pulled out his phone.

After taking a quick photo of the moving train, he decided to take another photo, because the newly renovated station looked so beautiful.

“I like the way the buildings come out of the station. So I went back to remote, and at this point nobody is on the platform,” recalls Nipert, who at the time was working on an article for Next STL about how MetroLink is safer than many people think. “It’s a bit empty, except for the two security guards. And I take a great landscape photo of it.

About two seconds after having succeeded, said Nipert Saint Louis live, a security guard shouted at him.

“She said, ‘Who are you taking a picture of?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m taking it from the platform,’ and I made a sign that I was trying to do it. And she said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And so, you know, I didn’t know the rules,” Nipert explained. “I thought maybe I was wrong, so I apologized and left.”

Although Nipert dismissed the interaction as not serious, he added that he was surprised to learn that Metro Transit would not want people to take pictures of the transit system – which he considers to be forming part of the public commons.

Evie Hemphill

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St. Louis Public Radio

Lisa Hoppenjans is director of the First Amendment Clinic at Wash U School of Law.

“So that was one of the weird things,” he said. “And I thought to myself [that] maybe they have rules about customer confidentiality or something and there’s a concern about something like that.

In reality, Metro lists the rules on its website for photography and video along the transit system. While the agency notes that such images “are fun ways to commemorate your journey on the subway,” it asks riders not to interfere with subway service and says “lights, tripods, and other types of ‘equipment is not permitted’ – and that such activities ‘may be restricted for reasons of safety, security or customer convenience.’

The transit agency sets separate rules for reporters and commercial photographers, saying those people “must first contact Metro’s communications department for approval.”

These distinctions raise questions and concerns for Lisa Hoppenjans, assistant professor of practice and director of the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law.

After all, photography is a form of expression and as such is tied to the First Amendment rights enshrined in the US Constitution. Even so, Hoppenjans acknowledges that these rights are not absolute.

On Tuesday’s show, Hoppenjans will join host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at what the law says about photography in public places.

Have you ever tried to take a picture in a public place, only to be told it wasn’t allowed? What questions or assumptions do you have for First Amendment attorney Lisa Hoppenjans?

Leave us a voicemail at 314-516-6397, email [email protected] or share your impressions via our Saint Louis live Facebook group, and help inform our coverage.

Saint Louis live” tells you the stories of Saint-Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenské and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The sound engineer is Aaron Dorr.

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