WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is calling for an investigation into a May incident involving a college student who was detained and questioned by government officials after he took pictures of a railroad bridge.
Ian Spiers, a 37-year-old photography student from Shoreline Community College, was approached by a police officer near the Ballard Locks after he was seen taking pictures of a nearby bridge for a class project. The locks, which are a popular tourist attraction and are located near a visitor’s center, provide a link for boats between the saltwater of the Puget Sound and the fresh water of the Ship Canal, connecting to Lake Union and Lake Washington.
The officer asked Spiers for identification, but left him alone after Spiers asked if he was legally obligated to show identification or if had had done anything wrong, the ACLU said.
Several minutes later, several officers from the Seattle Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security approached Spiers and said he had broken a law by taking pictures of a federal facility, according to the Associated Press. The officers detained and questioned Spiers for about 30 minutes, and then proceeded to take his picture before releasing him, the AP reported.
The ACLU contacted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the incident, however it denied having any involvement in the matter. The Corps, which operates the locks, referred the ACLU to the DHS, said Doug Honig, communications director for the ACLU of Washington.
Debra Lewis, district engineer for the Army Corps, said there are no regulations regarding who may visit or take photographs of the locks.
On July 30, the ACLU sent a letter to the DHS asking for further investigation into the incident, as well as “appropriate disciplinary action.” The ACLU also is requesting any photos of Spiers that were taken be destroyed.
Honig said the DHS has not responded to the letter sent by the ACLU.
“Security is very important, but government officials need to distinguish between students and spies, tourists and terrorists,” the ACLU said in a statement about the incident.
The May incident was not the first time government officials questioned Spiers about taking pictures at the bridge.
In April, two Seattle police officers questioned Spiers at his home after responding to a complaint that Spiers’ presence near the bridge was suspicious, according to the ACLU.
Spiers was told by a park ranger on that day that there “was no problem” taking the pictures. In addition to taking the photos, Spiers also was writing notes about the camera settings he was using to take the photos, according to the ACLU.
Spiers, who was unavailable for comment, has begun a Web site chronicling his two incidents with government officials at http://126.96.36.199.
The Seattle Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.