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N.Y. civil rights group expands suit over right to shoot video, pictures in public

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK- A civil rights group accused the police department of bullying photographers and filmmakers by detaining them and threatening them with arrest unless they destroyed their images or showed them to officers.

The New York Civil Liberties Union made the claim Monday in a rewrite of a lawsuit brought earlier this year against the city on behalf of an award-winning filmmaker from India who was blocked from videotaping near a famous midtown Manhattan building.

The lawsuit, in U.S. District Court, was filed in January after filmmaker Rakesh Sharma said he felt humiliated when he was detained in May 2005 by police who saw him use a handheld video camera near the MetLife building, which sits atop an underpass near Grand Central Terminal. He was shooting footage for a Sept. 11-related documentary.

Police have told the NYCLU that reports about photographers are the most common complaint called into their terrorism hot line, NYCLU associate legal director Chris Dunn said.

"While investigations may be appropriate in certain cases, people cannot be arrested for taking pictures, and police officers cannot coerce them into destroying images," Dunn said.

The expanded lawsuit says many other photographers and filmmakers have been treated by police the way Sharma was.

The city had not seen the rewritten lawsuit but would review it thoroughly, city attorney Susan Scharfstein said.

In court papers, the city has said it is entitled to government immunity from liability because its employees acted reasonably and did not violate the Constitution.

The lawsuit alleges the city has no policies, procedures or training for investigating complaints about photographers. It seeks to force the city to establish reasonable policies and to properly train officers to protect constitutional rights.

It also seeks compensatory damages for Sharma, who was taping background footage for a documentary examining changes in the lives of ordinary people such as taxi drivers after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Indian censors banned his awarding-winning 2003 documentary, "Final Solution," saying it might trigger unrest. It shows the 2002 religious rioting in the Western state of Gujarat, which killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

The NYCLU lawsuit says Sharma's documentaries rely on candid footage of people, places and events. It describes him as a law-abiding resident of Mumbai, India, who had never been arrested or detained before his New York experience.

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