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The Picture Police

Do festivals like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza have the right to restrict photography in a public park?

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Mauricio Vaca never intended to become a martyr for free and open parks. He just wanted to enjoy the Pitchfork Music Festival with his girlfriend and maybe snap some pictures of the acts.

But after trying to sneak in the wrong kind of camera, he was kicked out of Union Park. "I'm the last person I'd have thought this would happen to," says Vaca, an options trader. "I love music festivals."

Vaca arrived at the park about 6 PM on Friday, July 16, dashing over by cab from his apartment in Lakeview. "I had my camera bag with me and I opened it for the security guard at the gate to search it," says Vaca. "And the guard tells me, 'Bad news. It's not your lucky day.'"

The guard was referring to the Nikon D5000 camera with detachable lens in Vaca's bag. It turned out Pitchfork had a rule—no "professional" cameras, no detachable lenses. "I didn't know that rule," says Vaca. "Or believe me, I wouldn't have brought that lens."

He asked the guard if he could check the camera bag. "I'd be willing to pay to check it," he says. "But she said no."

As he saw it, at that point he had two options. He could take the camera home—a round trip to Lakeview that would have taken at least a couple hours in rush-hour traffic. Or he could try to sneak it in.

He went for option two.

His girlfriend, Emily Kagan, gave the guards her ticket and went into the festival. Then they crept along the fence, one on each side, until they were beyond the watchful eyes of the guards at the entrance—or so they thought. Vaca tossed his camera bag over the fence to Kagan.

Alas, a guard saw it all—busted. "It was a big guy—way bigger than my girlfriend," says Vaca. "He tells her, 'You're done.' He takes her to the security tent. And goes through my camera bag—takes apart the camera. Like he's looking for contraband or something. Give me a break."

The guard ushered Kagan out of the concert. Vaca was waiting for her on Ashland.

"That was that," says Vaca. "Once Emily got kicked out that was it for the evening."

He gave his ticket to a kid on the street and went home. He came back the next day and the day after that, but even so, the incident left a bitter taste in his mouth. "What they did was absurd, it was ridiculous," he says. "The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems."

So why go back?

"I'm telling you," he says with a laugh. "I'm a sucker for these festivals. I love festivals. But there is a larger issue here."

Which is this: Does Pitchfork, Lollapalooza (which has pretty much the same no detachable lens policy), or anyone else who rents out a public park for a private event have the right to limit the type of cameras people can bring in?

We've posed this question to Park District officials, concert promoters, and civil libertarians, and they all agree: Yes, so long as the Park District gave them that right in the lease they signed.

So the question becomes: does the Park District have the right to give Pitchfork that right? Not surprisingly, the answer here varies.

Mike Reed, director of the Pitchfork festival, says yes. "The Pitchfork Music Festival reserves the right to admit and prohibit certain items," Reed e-mailed. "These decisions are made according to standard festival policies and are nothing out of the ordinary. The rules are no cameras with detachable lenses will be allowed on festival grounds unless the attendee is a member of the press who has been approved for a photo pass prior to the festival."

Had Vaca bothered to visit Pitchfork's website, he'd have seen the rule clearly stated. Under the list of nonprohibited items, along with sunglasses, cigarettes, and folding chairs, are "digital cameras (non-professional), disposable cameras, film cameras (non-professional)."

Under the list of prohibited items—along with tents, flags, knives and other weapons, lounge chairs, pets, food, beverages (other than "sealed bottled water"), drugs, and drug paraphernalia, are video cameras, audio recording devices, and "professional cameras (NO cameras with detachable lenses)."

They even said "no" in capital letters just to make it clear.

So you can bring in cigarettes (which are, by the way, illegal to smoke on Park District property), and you can get drunk—provided you buy your beer from Pitchfork-approved vendors. But if you want to take a picture, you can only shoot it through a nondetachable lens.

Reed explains that concert promoters are walking a thin line between trying to accommodate fans—who want to snap away at the artists—and artists who want to control who makes money off them.

Says his e-mail, "All artists have different policies of how they'd like to be represented, photographically speaking, and most only want high-quality photographs coming from approved media outlets. Point & Shoot cameras allow fans to get the shots that they want of themselves and the artists they've come to see, but don't allow high-quality photos they could later sell to profit off the band's appearance."

Irony of ironies, there's a sign at the entrance gate warning concertgoers: "By entering here, you consent to the use of your image in filmed reproductions of this event." In other words: we can make money off pictures of you, but you can't take pictures of us with a decent camera.

As for the issue of restricting what kinds of cameras the public brings to a public park, according to Reed it's not really a public park when the festival's going on.

"The park is not public during the Pitchfork Music Festival, just as Grant Park is not during Lollapalooza," he writes. "If it were public, people could walk in free. This is an event that has gained usage of the park through a partnership with the Park District, hence it has the ability to charge admittance and set guidelines for what is and is not acceptable on the grounds."

Park District officials wholeheartedly agree. "This is not unusual," says Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a spokesperson for the Park District. "The promoters are leasing the park—they get to set some ground rules." And it's not as if the public wasn't getting compensated: Pitchfork paid the Park District for the use of Union Park. (Maxey-Faulkner said last week she'd get back to us with the amount but hadn't at press time. However, Wednesday morning someone in her office called to say the rent was $120,000.)

In a sense, it's a little like how Chicago can lease the parking meters to a private company and then let them quadruple the rates. The city's broke—firing teachers, leaving vacancies unfilled on the police force—it needs every nickel it can get. If that means bending to nitpicky rules regarding cameras and lenses in order to rent out its parks, so be it.

But civil rights lawyer Mark Weinberg sees it a little differently. Over the past 20 years or so, Weinberg's filed eight suits against the city, many on the general issue of limiting the public's rights on public property. For instance, he sued on behalf of panhandlers, and won. He sued when he was forbidden to peddle his own book slamming the late Bill Wirtz in front of the United Center when Wirtz owned the Blackhawks. He won that, too. "It's an interesting constitutional question," says Weinberg about the larger issue Vaca's ouster poses. "I'm not sure the Park District has the right to enter into an agreement with a promoter that forces the public to give up some fundamental rights." (Possession of a camera with a detachable lens on public land being, for the sake of argument, a fundamental right.)

Furthermore, Weinberg says it's an arbitrary and unreasonable restriction. No security issues are at stake, as they are with the ban on knives and guns. It's basically about accommodating the wants of the performers. "Essentially, they're saying you can send bad pictures of our concert over the Internet but you can't send good pictures out," says Weinberg. "That's not a copyright issue. Copyright would prevent the distribution of any pictures, good or bad."

It's not clear how many performers at Pitchfork actually care whether pro-quality cameras are kept outside the festival gate. Then again, if one band has that restriction in their rider, it doesn't matter how many others don't. Ironically, the quality of pictures made on so-called point-and-shoot cameras is, to the average consumer, rapidly approaching the quality of those taken with SLR cameras and detachable lenses. (And we're not even talking about video capability here.) Concert promoters are trying to control something—the creation and dissemination of images taken at an outdoor concert in a public park—that is largely beyond their control, and they're starting to look silly doing it.

The city went down a similar path in 2005 when it attempted to force "professional photographers"—whom security guards were expected to identify on a know-'em-when-you-see-'em basis—to buy a $325-a-day permit to shoot the Bean and other copyrighted artworks in Millennium Park.

Photographers rebelled. We wrote about it, the public rose up, and the city backed off.

It will be interesting to see if Lollapalooza's promoters are as vigilant about enforcing the professional camera policy when their festival opens next week. We're sure concertgoers will let us know.

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