Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ellsworth Drive photo policy unconstitutional, Leggett says

County executive speaks out against downtown Silver Spring restrictions

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The developers of downtown Silver Spring cannot prohibit visitors from taking pictures on the Ellsworth Drive property, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett announced Friday, publicly stating his position for the first time on a civil liberties controversy over use of the public-private space.

‘‘The [c]ounty considers Ellsworth to be a public forum permitting the free and unfettered exercise of First Amendment rights by residents of the county and its visitors,” Leggett (D) wrote in a letter to PFA Silver Spring LC and The Peterson Cos.

PFA Silver Spring is the name of holding company that developed downtown Silver Spring, including The Peterson Cos., the Foulger-Pratt Co. and Argo Investment Co. The Peterson Cos. leases the development and Ellsworth Drive from the county for $1.

Leggett was responding to an incident in June, when a security guard stopped amateur photographer and Silver Spring resident Chip Py from taking pictures of the property. Py, who said he was taking general photos of the area on a nice day, argued the street should be considered public property since $450 million in public funds has been invested into the property.

Soon after the indent, The Peterson Cos. allowed photography and videography on the property as long as patrons were not photographed or filmed over their objection while reserving the right to modify the policy.

But Py and 70 other residents turned out in protest July 4 in downtown Silver Spring, believing their civil rights such as petitioning and organizing were still in jeopardy.

Leggett, in his letter, acknowledged the agreement between the county and the developers allowed the developers to create rules and regulations for the property to keep it safe, secure and economically viable. But, Leggett wrote, ‘‘these rights do not change the character of Ellsworth as a public forum, nor countenance violation of the First Amendment rights of residents and visitors to Montgomery County who use Ellsworth.”

On Monday, Py called Leggett’s statement ‘‘a major step in getting our First Amendment rights restored in downtown Silver Spring.”

‘‘I’m glad that our elected officials have taken it upon themselves to take it up with the developers,” he said. ‘‘The ball is now in their court.”

I.J. Hudson, communications director of Bethesda-based Garson Claxton, the law firm working with the developers, said they are reviewing Leggett’s letter and their policies.

Hudson noted the changes already made to the photography policy and said modified rules balancing the developers’ obligations as lessees with the concerns of residents will soon be released.

‘‘We will meet the needs of the entire community, including the First Amendment rights of patrons and visitors,” he said.