A few weeks ago John Mattison was snapping photos on an el platform when a train conductor told him to stop. “The conductor told me it’s illegal to take pictures on CTA property,” says Mattison, a 31-year-old north-side resident. “I didn’t know that. I bet a lot of people don’t know that. I’m sure it’s going to be a big surprise to a lot of tourists. This is one of those incredibly ridiculous rules that exist for no good reason.”

Mattison, a portrait photographer by trade, has been taking pictures in subway stations, on el platforms, and on trains for a few years. He almost always carries a camera with him when he goes out. “I’m always looking for good pictures,” he says. “You just try to catch the moment and other short slices of life.”

Among his favorite settings are trains and el platforms. “Sometimes I have a tripod, sometimes I just have a little camera,” he says. “Sometimes I take pictures of elements of the platform–like a sign or something. But mostly I take pictures of the riders.”

He says he’s never been given a hard time by any passenger. “You kind of get a feel for people. Some people you want to ask if it’s OK to shoot them, others you just go for the moment. If it’s going to ruin the moment, if you can only get that moment by them not knowing, I won’t ask. I’m really sensitive to my subject, and it’s important not to be exploitive. If someone is upset I apologize. That’s happened once or twice. No big deal. Then you’ve got other people asking me to take their pictures. Every time I take a picture of someone I give them my number and say, ‘If you want a copy, give me a call.’ Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Of course it’s all free of charge.”

His first confrontation with the CTA was on May 24. “I was on the el–the Brown Line–taking pictures of people,” he says. “It was just a people-on-a-train environment–pictures of people in the morning, to be specific. I was doing a Sunday-morning commute–just the feel of it. I had my tripod with me. I set it up on the train. I was trying new techniques with a larger camera.”

At Monroe he got off and set up on the platform. A train pulled up, and the conductor leaned out of the window. “He told me, ‘You can’t do that,'” says Mattison. “I said something like, ‘I see tourists do it all the time.'”

The train pulled out. A moment later a guard approached him on the platform. “That driver definitely must have called someone, because this guard came up out of nowhere and said, ‘You have to stop taking pictures,'” says Mattison. “I said, ‘Why do you have to stop me?’ He said, ‘It’s against the law.’ I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. How can shooting pictures on a el platform be against the law? Hundreds of tourists do it every day. I just finished off my roll and left.”

On Sunday, June 15, Mattison was back at it, this time on the Red Line. He was on the subway platform at the North and Clybourn stop waiting for the northbound train and taking a picture of the exit sign. I happened to arrive on the platform at that moment, just in time to see a uniformed CTA security guard confront him. Only a few other commuters were on the platform.

“He said, ‘You can’t take pictures here,'” says Mattison. “I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘It’s against the law. The law is that you’re not allowed to do that on CTA property.’ I said, ‘People do it all the time. I’m just taking pictures of the sign.'”

By this point the guard was standing directly over Mattison. “I said, ‘Can’t you cut me some slack?'” Mattison says. “He said, ‘No, this is the law.’ I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy.’ Obviously, it’s not crowded. I’m not in anyone’s way. I’m not bothering anyone–I’m taking pictures of an exit sign. What’s it gonna do? I thought, ‘This is crazy, but he might arrest me.'”

Two or three more people had walked down to the platform. “There’s that awkwardness of having all those people watching,” says Mattison. “I know they’re probably wondering, what did this guy do wrong? I didn’t want to push my luck.”

Nevertheless he asked to see the guard’s ID. “I said, ‘You work for the CTA, right? Let me see your badge,'” he says. “He was wearing that uniform, but I just wanted to make sure.”

The guard paused, then pulled out his badge. A train came, and Mattison got on board. He was still a little shaken. “I know the guard was just doing his job, but the company doesn’t have to own you heart and soul,” he said, as he rode north. “I was just taking the exit sign. I thought it was cool. Maybe it’s a trademark thing. Maybe they don’t want me taking pictures of exit signs ’cause they own all the rights to pictures of CTA exit signs. I don’t know. I can’t believe it’s really against the law.”

Actually, according to CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney, it’s not against the law. “It’s not illegal to take photos, but there are some rules,” she says. “Generally, for commercial photography we require production companies or the photographers to work through us and provide proper insurance. If they’re going to have a lot of equipment we have a supervisor go with them–we charge them for that. It’s the same with someone who’s filming a movie on the CTA.”

As for people who are just taking snapshots, Gaffney says, “it’s usually not an issue. But obviously we don’t want people impeding the flow of traffic or getting in the way. We don’t want them putting their equipment on the platform. And since September 11 we’ve asked our employees to be more vigilant in reporting things that are unusual, and sometimes they have reported people who are taking photos. A lot of times there are people who are rail fans or transit buffs who come from other cities, and they’re going all over the place snapping photos of things that aren’t of interest to the typical person who comes to our station. In that case, they’re sometimes asked to identify themselves or cease taking pictures.”

Mattison says he doesn’t see how he could have been seen as causing a problem. “OK, the first time I had a tripod, but I wasn’t in anyone’s way,” he says. “I try to stay out of the way. I don’t want to be a hassle. I don’t want to be disruptive. I don’t want to be obvious when I’m capturing a moment–that would destroy the moment.” He laughs. “Think of that scene on the platform. We were almost alone down there. There was no one around for me to impede! To me this is like one of those stupid rules corporations have that make absolutely no sense. I know in the total scheme of things this is no big deal. But it bothers me. They’re just using 9/11 as an excuse to take away our rights and control people.”

Piling On

The city’s case against Mark Weinberg recently took an interesting twist. Last month all four major sports leagues filed a brief arguing that the 42-year-old public-interest lawyer should be kept from peddling his book outside the United Center on the grounds that he’s a threat to public safety.

The brief–filed by Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League, as well as U.S. Cellular Field and the United Center–is the latest development in a fight that began about 6:30 PM on December 27, 2000. According to Weinberg, that’s when three United Center security guards put him in a headlock, threw him to the ground, cuffed his hands behind his back, led him into the arena, held him in a room with his hands chained to a wall, and called the police to have him arrested.

He was charged with battery. “They said I threw a punch at them,” says Weinberg. “That’s just ridiculous. I don’t throw punches.”

Weinberg contends his real crime was offending “the boss.” He was selling a book he’d written and published called Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz’s Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks’ Fans. In it he not only mocks Wirtz, who owns the Blackhawks and part of the United Center, but claims that he’s a petty tyrant who abuses his power.

The battery case was eventually dismissed. But when Weinberg showed up at the United Center on February 14, 2001, to peddle more copies of his book, the police warned that they’d arrest him if he didn’t leave. “They were going to count down from ten,” he says, “and ‘If you’re not out of here before we get to one we’ll arrest you.'” He left.

A few days later Weinberg filed a federal lawsuit against the city, arguing that the city’s antipeddling ordinance, which the cops had invoked to remove him from the sidewalk, infringed on his First Amendment right to sell the book.

The first judge to hear the case ruled for the city. Weinberg appealed, and last November he won a reversal from a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

On May 19 the city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that Chicago’s ability to police and protect its streets was at stake. “Unfortunately, our world now requires governments at all levels to be increasingly vigilant toward policing, especially in large public venues and crowds,” lawyers for the city wrote in their brief. They acknowledged that Weinberg was a lone bookseller and took up only a tiny spot on the sidewalk outside the United Center. But, they noted, “the universe of those who can claim an entitlement under the First Amendment to sell their wares is not limited to Weinberg.” They said the ruling in his favor might result in throngs of peddlers clogging the sidewalks, selling everything from T-shirts to videos.

Both sides were waiting to hear whether the Supreme Court would take the case when the big boys in the sports world weighed in. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Weinberg. “It just came out of the blue–and they didn’t hold anything back.”

According to the brief filed by MLB, the NHL, the NBA, the NFL, U.S. Cellular Field, and the United Center, the appellate court’s “opinion will weaken local governments’ ability to support a secure environment around large, crowded sports arenas.” The brief continues: “Anyone who attends major sporting events knows that traffic flow in and out of the arenas is always a concern, and has become a bigger issue since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Lines and wait times have increased in the wake of security checks that are now required prior to patrons’ entering the sports arena.”

The brief also contends that “a recent advisory issued by the Department of Homeland Security reminds the public that ‘recreational’ venues ‘that will yield a high casualty count’ are prime targets for terrorism. The advisory points out that ‘nearly every major terrorist attack is preceded by a thorough surveillance of the targeted facility’ and that ‘in fixed surveillance scenarios, terrorists may establish themselves in a public location over a period of time or choose disguises or occupations such as street vendors.’…The advisory also cautions facilities operators to watch for ‘packages, devices, unattended briefcases, or other unusual materials’–but of course if there is extensive peddling outside a sports arena, such objects will be abundant and difficult to monitor. Remote though such dangers may be, they support deference to Chicago’s ordinance.”

Weinberg scoffs at this logic. He points out that some of the team owners, such as the Tribune Company, are also in the newspaper business. Are they going to clear the sidewalks of their vendors and their unattended newspaper boxes? Moreover, he says, many of Chicago’s teams encourage their fans to congregate around ballparks–the White Sox even sponsor tailgate parties. Aren’t those parties also potential security threats? Couldn’t terrorists be lurking in those crowds? And what about the crowds in the bars around Wrigley Field, or the guys who shag flies on Sheffield and Waveland? Couldn’t terrorists also infiltrate them?

Weinberg claims the sports leagues’ overseers aren’t really worried about terrorism. “They’re shamelessly exploiting 9/11 to promote their own petty interests,” he says. “This is not about public safety. They want to drive me off the corner because they think these arenas are their kingdoms and they don’t want anybody profiting in any shape or form unless they control it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.