San Francisco Muni begins to enforce imaginary no-photos policy

The blogger at What I'm Seeing is a prolific photographer of San Francisco's rapid transit system, and thus has fallen afoul of its imaginary no-photos policy, with a threatened arrest:

Before I could get the 1st shot off, Fare Inspector #32 started marching towards me, hands in the air, yelling at me to "STOP TAKING PICTURES!!" So I put away camera, walked towards him and answered his statement with a question. I asked him if he could site me the specific Muni code that prohibited a Translink Card carrying passenger from taking pictures of Muni Personal on Muni Property. He could not. Instead he responded that I "needed his permission" and demanded to see my "credentials" and the pictures on my camera. He added that in fact, if I was unwilling to turn over possession of my camera to him he would seize my camera and have me arrested.
What Is Muni's Photography Policy?? (Thanks, Ted!)


  1. Finally someone stepping in and stopping these fiendish photographers from stealing policemen’s souls.

  2. This looks like a re-run of the Union Station (DC) story. I hope a local news crew tries to interview the Muni’s PR person in a station and the guards try to shut down the interviewer’s TV camera. When it happened like that in DC, the Metro system’s PR guy kept saying to the guard that there was no policy against cameras but the guard insisted. Too funny.

  3. Why won’t someone actually just challenge this supposed policy? Sort of like on the US Office when Dwight tells Ryan that he wants to search him, and that they “can either do this the easy way or the hard way.” Ryan asks what’s the hard way is, and Dwight says he’ll call the police, who will go to a judge, get a search warrant, and then come back, and search him. To which Ryan responds, “Okay. Let’s do it the hard way.”

    I really want someone to tell the tin badges a polite, but firm, “No,” and force them to actually defend this mysterious policy (and misguided policy).

  4. Would it be that hard — if you have the time to deal with it — to tell Mr. Mallcop to go ahead and arrest you and take your camera, then hit him and the Muni with a suit for false imprisonment, theft, etc? Maybe a DA would like to get involved with Impersonating a Cop…

  5. Gilbert Anonymous here:

    Looks like a perfect place to stage a flash mob of photographers. What could they do about that?

  6. “San Francisco’s rapid transit system”

    Whaaa? Muni is not rapid. Muni is a turtle. The average speed is a mere 11mph according to a study this year.

    And their “officers” are just private security, basically. They have no real authority.

  7. If you were an inefficient public-fund sucking embarrassment, would you want your picture taken? And they just raised their fares. Waste of a Sandisk card.

  8. Can it be that difficult to get some high-level official in the organization down there for an interview on the subject? I would love to see one of those pseudo-cops come up and threaten their bosses’ bosses’ boss with arrest: “You want to arrest me for taking pictures? Do you have that authority?”

    “Yes, I do. I am a security official here.”

    “Not any more. You’re fired, you idiot.”

  9. Seriously … FCK thm wth bg hrd sck f dcks.

    This is the perfect opportunity for some enterprising company to come out with a line of high quality covert cameras for people who want to take pictures without getting hassled by the gestapo.

  10. this is just begging for a photog flash mob.
    If I was local, I’d organize it in a heart beat.

  11. Melvin Van Peebles was a gripman on the SF cable cars in 1957.

    He wrote a book/photo essay of daily life on the trolleys and was promptly sacked.

  12. He wasn’t taking his picture was he? Cuz I’d kick ur ass if you were taking mine! What exactly was the photo! Maybe some secretive project, public safety sensitive stuff :)

  13. I guess that is the photo he took, sooo lucky he didn’t taze you!

    Nice pose though.

  14. This would seem to be an opportunity to get rid of all those cheap little film cameras that no one wants anymore.

  15. Wait, it appears he was about to take your photo! beat you to the punch! Or was he trying some non verbal language. ::pulls out phone:: don’t take photos, see my camera? put yours away!

  16. Those two guys have ticketed me before because my transfer was 7 minutes late. They don’t want you taking pictures of them because they like to yell at people. Just last week I saw an old muni ticketing lady trying to apprehend a teenage black kid and he literally walked away and she just yelled at him to stop and come back. Naturally, he didn’t listen, and kept walking and got away. That right there tells me they have no authority whatsoever. The lesson: you can easily escape old muni ticketing ladies by WALKING AWAY.

  17. That may be an idea for a website…a compendium of various laws for each city regarding photography in public places. Simply print out your own city’s law and carry it in your wallet for when you encounter power tripping little people like the one mentioned above.

  18. Stop bitching and whining about your “rights” being taken away, and show some respect, you punk.
    Those hard working security guards don’t need a brat like you bawling about how you’re allowed to take pictures.
    They’re just trying to keep us safe.

    1. Stop bitching and whining about your “rights” being taken away, and show some respect, you punk. Those hard working security guards don’t need a brat like you bawling about how you’re allowed to take pictures. They’re just trying to keep us safe.


      People think that you’re being serious.

  19. @Adonai (#24): That’s actually a pretty good idea.

    Although I’m not aware of a single city or municipality with a law restricting photography in public places. (If one exists, I’d sure like to know). Other than the “call our media department if you’d like to park a generator and talent trailers on the street for your film”, of course.

    On a side note, iStockPhoto has compiled a Wiki of seemingly-public places that require releases or permission for commercial use:

  20. Also a good site for photographers…

    I wonder what these “individuals” read rent-a-cops are going to do when technology lets cameras automatically upload photos to flickr?

    “you must delete your photos from you camera and close your flickr account or we’ll umm…detain you.”

    I just don’t see it happening.

  21. The imaginary no-photos policy goes well with the imaginary timetable, the imaginary adequate seating and the completely apocryphal N-Judah.

  22. Good news: these fake-cop fucks are about to disappear soon. Turns out the “fare inspector” program costs the city way, WAY more than it generates by way of fare enforcement/revenues from tickets they write. So the fare inspectors are on the chopping block, INSTEAD of a proposed fare increase. Best news I’ve heard in a while.

  23. Three words: United. States. Constitution. First amendment freedom of speech and expression, which also covers taking pictures in public. The rule of law that in the public arena there is “no expectation of privacy.”
    These guys are not cops but civil servants whose job it is to regulate riders and fares on Muni.
    Not to disparage them but real cops are taught from day one that they have no authority to interfere with anyone taking pictures of them. Not only is this the law, it further insures a system of checks and balances with the people sworn to protect those very rights.

  24. I like Gilbert’s flash mob idea.People taking pictures of people taking pictures of people who don’t allow people to take pictures.

    If someone is up to no good and photography helps
    them I’m sure they would do if furtively to avoid
    drawing attention to themselves.

  25. the other day i was waiting on the SFSU platform for the M to take me to Balboa Park and decided I’d rather take the bus, and as i was leaving to walk across the street the MUNI Police asked to see my ticket. i wasn’t on a bus or tram, and there hadn’t been a bus or tram at the station in over 5 minutes, i was simply leaving the platform. i asked the guy why he needed to see my ticket if i wasn’t on MUNI itself, and he claimed they were checking everyone leaving the platform for a ticket. i told him that was stupid, because i hadn’t even gotten on the tram, i was just waiting for it, etc, and he just said “may i see your ticket, ma’am”. i tried to argue more but he could only repeat his first statement and ask for my ticket, either he too realised the rule was dumb, or he himself was dumb. i got tired of the pointless argument and eventually showed him my monthly fastpass.

    i don’t know if the law is legit, that you can be fined for not having a ticket if you’re leaving the platform (& this was an outdoor platform, you don’t need a ticket to get there). i wasn’t aware of it, and a half-hearted search on google didn’t turn up any info. does anyone have a link to a page for MUNI laws???

    oh, and another time i was riding the M home through mission terrace and there was this overweight, black, teenaged girl ranting and raving about something or other (i couldn’t really understand her AAVE). then the MUNI ticket inspector (who was also black) came along and i realised the girl was talking to her, and calling the faux-po all sorts of hillarious names and making fun of her and just trying to get some sort of reaction. it was hillarious, i was tempted to join in.

    anyway, muni sucks but i’m devoted to it all the same.

  26. I would love to see a gathering of several hundred photographers converge on this spot – all using flash photography as fast as they can keep clicking the button.

    This is just foolish. If someone wants photos for nefarious reasons, I doubt he would even be seen by these rent-a-gestapo.

  27. Congratulations!
    Like in my country (Poland) – 20 years ago… :)
    Do it something!
    Make noise!

  28. @ #3 coaxial

    “Why won’t someone actually just challenge this supposed policy?”

    See that is the heart of the problem, it is not a policy it has never been handed down.

    It exists in isolation in thousands of different heads.

    It is next to impossible to remove received ideas, doubly so when they were never received in the first place.

  29. Here’s really how to get back at them. If any fare inspectors attempt to do this, get their name and badge number (and a picture if you can manage it) and post it on a forum/blog/site like this one. Throw it up on flickr and tag the hell out of it. Heck, print it out and do some flyer postings near muni stations. Bad publicity is the best motivator for these kind of things, and if you can generate enough to get say ABC news involved, then you’ve got yourself a winner.

  30. Wait a minute. . .

    he would seize my camera and have me arrested.

    So. . . he’s going to ROB you and then have you ARRESTED?

    Just reply “and I’m going to have my lawyer harass you and then bill you for it.”

  31. Look, these guys are told every week at the terrorism security briefing to nip any suspicious activity in the bud. A guy walking around snapping photos of nothing in particular is pretty suspicious when you’re a transit cop. And they’re stopping you even though you don’t look like the stereotypical Muslim terrorist because to do otherwise is racial profiling.

    Sure, there’s no specific rule on file, and I agree that stopping photographers is not going to make us safer. But put yourselves in their shoes. Next time, ask permission if you really want to document the SF Muni system so you don’t freak out some poor schmo on the job.

  32. OK, who knows a lawyer who’s looking for a fast buck and/or publicity?

    Hershmire — I agree that they’re getting bad messages from above, and that needs to be fixed. But they’re also implementing those messages badly, and they do need their wrists slapped so they know where their authority stops.

  33. #42 hershmire

    You are dead wrong on this one. The fare inspector (note NOT transit cop) just didn’t like having his picture taken. This has nothing to do with security, surveillance, terrorism. The man had a tin badge and he didn’t like having his picture taken so he decided to use his uniform to throw his weight around. Simple as that. Because he could, because he can. Put someone in a uniform and they will act like they have authority over you. In this case he overstepped the mark, the only authority he has is to ask to see your ticket.

  34. @ bservies #40:

    BART and MUNI are different services. BART is regional and has its own police force (analogous to the highway patrol) whereas MUNI is local and patrolled by the San Francisco Police Department and other city employees.

  35. #25 Dequeued: Respect is earned by behavior. Respect does not come with a badge, despite delusions so common between the badge-holders.

  36. Note: human beings fall into their roles.

    @ 42 Hershmire: what’s the point of having civil liberties if you’re just going to let a fake cop walk all over them… you’re experiencing a thought terminating cliche. I hope you can see that.

  37. I wonder if this photo tension is related to the plethora of videos documenting the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART cops on New Year’s Day.

  38. @47 Ohhhsnap, are you seriously claiming that this is a major civil rights issue?

    All the photographer had to do was contact the Muni administrators and get permission to photograph on the system and that would have shut the inspector up.

    Yeah, the inspector is a dick and he didn’t have a right to threaten the photographer. But put yourself in his shoes: imagine someone on the Muni started blatantly snapping photo after photo of you. Yes, you’re in a public place and he has a right to photograph you, but I doubt you wouldn’t ask him to stop. t’s clld nt bng dck – smthng y mght nd t wrk n.

  39. Delightfully Kafkaesque.

    From the photography policy (thanks to whoever found it):

    If you are a paying passenger making your way from point A to point B, then there is no specific prohibition to taking photographs in areas that are accessible to the public provided you do not appear to be a security threat, involved in a commercial activity or harassing other riders.

    While it would make sense that wielding a camera isn’t automatic cause for suspicion, it sounds like it’s entirely up to enforcement whether you pass their “sniff test”.

  40. @48 Hershmire,

    Someone telling you under the pretense of false authority that you cannot do something that you have the right to do is an infringement of your civil liberties. Perhaps not the most major, but, for some, obviously not you, enough to stand up for themselves for.

    The photog wasn’t snapping photos of the inspector until he came over threatening to take their camera and arrest them.

  41. hershmire

    It’s called not being a dick – something you might need to work on.

  42. #29: That’s very interesting. Here in my bit of EnglandLand, the Metro system has no ticket barriers (removed after the Charing Cross tube disaster, even though the London Underground still has them, go figure). They have been replaced with teams of ticket inspectors – I wonder if anyone’s ever done a cost/benefit analysis on them? As the system’s publicly owned (for now), that might be worth looking into…

  43. as for the calls for flash mobs, the problem is hardly rampant.

    you’d have a ton of photographers mob a station or train and have a bunch of apathetic muni employees more annoyed about the crowd of people than cameras.

  44. @52 Gilbert Wham

    You mean the Kings Cross disaster.

    What’s your bit of England? Most central London stations have barriers, including Kings Cross.

    My little suburban station can’t be arsed, though.

  45. @ darth_schmoo #49:

    Again: that is the BART policy, not the MUNI policy (which I am also curious to see). Different transit system entirely.

  46. anyhow: it’s all about to become a moot point because fare-inspecting turned out to be an expensive boondoggle and they are firing all of these guys.

    And perhaps some clarity for non-SF people: despite the uniforms, those people in the photo are NOT transit cops. They are not even really security guards. Their shoulder patches have a picture of a bus on them and they say “fare inspector”. Their only job is to check if you paid for your train ticket. I’ve always felt like their quasi-cop uniforms were very misleading. They have no authority to touch you, they’re meter maids, essentially. They can’t even arrest you, let alone insist that you stop taking photos.

    Muni is the San Francisco city bus/trolley system. BART is a multi-city subway train that runs under the bay and has its own full police force (the ones that killed Oscar Grant.) BART has a photo policy. Muni does not. The fare inspectors don’t have to fear being caught on camera shooting anyone, because the only weapons they carry are stupidity and harsh language.

  47. “as for the calls for flash mobs, the problem is hardly rampant.”

    …That’s why we need not one but *several* flash mobs, at every single location where the hire-a-nazis have been reported to be pulling this crap. If we don’t stand up en masse now and make it clear we’re not going to stand for powertripping mall cops reliving their days as the school bullies, eventually they’ll get their “laws” prohibiting photography where they “police” enacted by de facto.

  48. I say fight hysteria with hysteria. If someone tried to confront me like this I would start coughing and waving them back, spitting out the words “SWINE… FLU…” and see if they still wanted to harass me. This would be a very quick way to make them own their paygrade.

    Xenu@~8: I kept reading that as “San Francisco’s rabid transit system” even after re-reading it several times. Perhaps I have Freudian sight.

    Anon@~12: If I had just taken a sip of my frosty beverage, I would have spewed it all over my keyboard.

    Hershmire@~42: “And they’re stopping you even though you don’t look like the stereotypical Muslim terrorist because to do otherwise is racial profiling.”

    Do you think that stops them from doing the same to any Muslim looking folks anyway? And essentially you are saying they have to use a broader net in their mission creepy mission, in order to avoid being accused of racial profiling? FAIL! Never mind that there is no rule or law they are enforcing here, can you cite one terrorist incident that has ever happened (outside of a movie) where terrorists photo-surveyed an area beforehand? No, you can’t, because IT HAS NEVER HAPPENED. Why is taking photographs suddenly “suspicious activity?

    Did anyone else notice, in the linked article that the photographer says:

    “Conversely, one of my photos will be featured in the centerfold of the Market Street Railway’s upcoming newsletter “Inside Track.”

    Maybe they should use this one (above) instead. -The true face of MUNI.

  49. @33 anonymous on the SFSU M platform

    Yes, you need a transfer or fast pass to be on that platform. There are signs around saying so. If you are running for the streetcar and can’t stop to pay at the ticket machines, or if they’re broken as usual, then you can board the first car and pay.

  50. Whoops, I forgot to close my sarcasm block, sorry!
    Whenever we have a story like this, I like to contribute the obligatory authority apology posts.
    Better I get them out of the way.

    We all know the classics:
    “Their job is SO HARD, we should give those guys a break, we all make mistakes”

    “They’re just trying to keep us safe you ungrateful punk”

    “Stop bitching and whining SHUTUP”

    And of course the old chestnut “If you value your freedom thank a cop”

  51. If the SF Muni police are going to be enforcing ficticious laws and policies, perhaps what we need are some ficticious permits and licenses, so I designed a couple of official-looking MUNI and DHS Photography Licenses.

  52. If they can make up imaginary rules, so can you.

    Actually, sir, you’re mistaken. Photography was previously not mentioned in any muni rules. But 2 months ago, the Director of Operations of the SF Muni issued a directive specifically permitting photography. This was done following complains from passengers, tourists, and the SF Tourism Board.

    I discovered this when I called your HQ about permission for photography on the platform. They told me that none is necessary. If any SF Muni staff asks, I’m to refer them to directive # 42.7

  53. all we need is a blog with youtube links… the clips, of course, would be from hidden cameras being carried through these places… it would be very easy to do anonymously…
    If I were local I’d put some up just to drive them nuts… LOL

    of course it would also be fun to put a taser in a camera body and then hand it over when they order you to… evil grin ;)

  54. I don’t understand why this is so rampant. What do they have to gain by hassling photographers, _especially_ when the law clearly says that photography is allowed?

  55. There is a reason to consider what motivates such arbitrary photo prohibitions being fabricated.

    A camera can indeed be considered a weapon. Used by repressive government against citizens. Or used by citizens against repression…

  56. In Canada, a person’s image is now their property, so taking a picture of them with out their permission is copyright infringement. Some people just don’t want their face in other peoples’ stuff.

  57. The thing is we challenge this whole thing successfully back in 2005:
    (unfortunately the stories are old enough that it looks like sfist has removed the pics).
    The way it worked for us was our threatened day of photography protest, where we told them a bunch of photographers would meet on the trains and ride and shoot pics to our hearts content. The day before our ride, they clarified their “policy” and included new training practices. Since then this is the first major problem I’ve heard of. If it happens again, it sounds like it is time for another Muni community photography ride.

  58. California shield law


    California Evidence Code § 1070 currently provides as follows:

    § 1070. Newsmen’s Privilege–Unpublished Information.

    (a) A publisher, editor, reporter, or other person connected with or employed upon a newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, or by a press association or wire service, or any person who has been so connected or employed, cannot be adjudged in contempt by a judicial, legislative, administrative body, or any other body having the power to issue subpoenas, for refusing to disclose, in any proceeding as defined in Section 901, the source of any information procured while so connected or employed for publication in a newspaper, magazine or other periodical publication, or for refusing to disclose any unpublished information obtained or prepared in gathering, receiving or processing of information for communication to the public.

    (b) Nor can a radio or television news reporter or other person connected with or employed by a radio or television station, or any person who has been so connected or employed, be so adjudged in contempt for refusing to disclose the source of any information procured while so connected or employed for news or news commentary purposes on radio or television, or for refusing to disclose any unpublished information obtained or prepared in gathering, receiving or processing of information for communication to the public.

    (c) As used in this section, “unpublished information” includes information not disseminated to the public by the person from whom disclosure is sought, whether or not related information has been disseminated and includes, but is not limited to, all notes, outtakes, photographs, tapes or other data of whatever sort not itself disseminated to the public through a medium of communication, whether or not published information based upon or related to such material has been disseminated.

    Cal. Evid. Code § 1070.

    As the California Supreme Court has explained, California’s shield law was first adopted in 1935 as Code of Civil Procedure § 1881. Delaney v. Superior Court, 50 Cal. 3d 785, 795-96 (Cal. 1990). At that time, it provided an immunity from contempt for a newspaper employee’s refusal to disclose source information, but it did not explicitly protect other unpublished information or other forms of media. Id. Amendments added employees of radio and television stations, press associations, and wire services to the shield law’s protection. Id. In 1965, the shield law was transferred to Evidence Code § 1070. Id. In 1972, apparently in response to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972) (which held that a newsperson did not have a qualified privilege against disclosing source information to a grand jury), the California Legislature amended § 1070 to protect “unpublished information,” in addition to protecting the identity of confidential sources. Id.

    The reporter’s privilege in the California Evidence Code is essentially identical to the provision of the California Constitution that was adopted in 1980, discussed below. Consequently, the cases applying the reporter’s privilege typically rely on the Constitution for support, rather than applying the statutory protection.

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