Citing First Amendment violations, a Florida publisher and the Society of Professional Journalists have filed suit against the city of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and its police chief over the city’s temporary ban on photography in a public area around a Hollywood movie set. Some local photographers, meanwhile, are threatening to gather and take pictures in defiance of the ban if it is not lifted by Friday.

The film production at the center of the controversy is for a movie based on the musical “Rock of Ages” and starring Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin. Production began June 6. The city of Ft. Lauderdale closed off several city streets to keep the public off the set, and posted signs around the periphery that say:

“Warning. No Trespassing. Photography of this area is strictly prohibited. Strictly enforced by FLPD. Violators subjet (sic) to arrest. City Ordinance 16-1”

City police officers are reportedly being paid by the film producers to guard the periphery, and enforce the photo ban.

But the city’s ordinances place no restrictions on photography, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday by SPJ and South Florida Gay News. In fact, city law bars any prohibition of constitutionally protected speech, and “news gathering and photography are forms of protected speech,” the lawsuit says.

But when an SFGN photographer tried to take pictures from outside the designated “no tresspassing area,” police prevented him from doing so and placed him under arrest, the lawsuit alleges. Other journalists and even private citizens have also been threatened with arrest to prevent them from taking pictures, according to the suit.

Journalists and citizens are “in imminent danger of criminal prosecution in violation of their constitutionally protected rights by enforcement of an ordinance that is being publicly misrepresented and is not within the purview of the law,” the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs are seeking an emergency injunction to prevent the city from enforcing its “purported ban on photography at the filming location.” Plaintiffs are also seeking a declaration from the court that the ban is unconstitutional, to make it risky for city officials to impose such a ban again the next time a Hollywood movie crew comes to town. They are also seeking unspecified monetary damages.

The National Press Photographers Association has also weighed in last week with a letter to Ft. Lauderdale’s chief of police.

“Law enforcement agencies are established to uphold and enforce existing laws not to create new ones or act in a lawless manner. Public photography is a free speech/free press right protected by the First Amendment. Photography may not be restricted in a public place to accommodate the whims of Hollywood or the desire by your officers to please their ‘second-job’ employers,” NPPA attorney Mickey H. Osterreicher wrote in the letter.

Accusing the police of creating a climate that chills free speech, Osterreicher concluded his letter by saying, “We would respectfully request that the posted signs be removed and that your officers, whether on or off-duty, be reprimanded for their inappropriate, unprofessional and possibly illegal behavior. We further request that they be directed to immediately cease these activities.”

Osterreicher says he has yet to receive a response to his letter.

Meanwhile, SPJ says in a press release that if the ban is not rescinded by Friday, it will organize an informal protest it is calling a “lunch-in” with Miami photojournalist Carlos Miller, publisher of Photography Is Not a Crime, a blog devoted to defending photographers’ First Amendment rights. SPJ and Miller have invited photographers and citizens alike to “descend on Southwest Second Street at 1 p.m. to buy lunch – carrying and clicking their SLRs and smartphone cameras” in defiance of the ban.

SPJ is taking pains to explain that the “lunch-in” is not a formal protest “because SPJ doesn’t want the city invoking its right to deny a protest permit.”

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