Monday 18 October 2010

Private Places

There's been a bit of a row concerning Multrees Walk in the centre of Edinburgh:
Most people would probably agree that Multrees Walk is fairly attractive public space. There's no traffic, it has a high quality 'retail experience', there's a cafe where you can sit outside and watch life go by. Some of the shops have better than average window displays. Just don't try and take a photo of it, as overzealous security guards might start threatening you.
The planned demonstration by photographers took place today:
A flashmob of photographers descended on Multrees Walk today to protest against the treatment of Stefan Karpa, who was escorted off the exclusive shopping street by security guards last week.
I am both a libertarian and a keen photographer. So what are my views on this?

First, if Multrees Walk is indeed private property (though there seems to be some doubt) then the owners have every right to set whatever rules they like for those entering their property. Just as one does with one's own house.

Whether such rules are sensible or not is quite another matter. In my view, banning photography in property that is open for the public to enter at will is both stupid and offensive in the extreme. Especially in a city dependent on tourism. But the proper response is not to say that "there ought to be a law against it" but rather to take action in the free market against those initiating such rules.

I would suggest something like writing polite letters to the occupiers of the shops in Multrees Walk letting them know that one will boycott their businesses so long as this rule remains in place. Perhaps leaflets should be handed out to visiting camera-carrying tourists giving them a friendly warning about Multrees Walk's bizarre rules.

But there is another angle to this. The only alternative to privately owned streets is state owned streets. Whereas the owners of Multrees Walk would almost certainly capitulate to a vigorous (and well-deserved) campaign that threatened their profits, the state faces no such threat. A year or so ago we read about policemen in London interrogating visiting tourists who had been seen photographing red buses and Christmas decorations. The British photographic press has been up in arms about police persecution of photographers in publicly owned spaces for ages.

The whole point about private property is that it allows for all sorts of competing rules concerning interactions with non-owners. In a regime of totally privately owned streets I'd have little doubt that the owners of Multrees Walk would quickly realise that a speedy route to the bankruptcy court would be to annoy significant numbers of their tenants' customers. There is no such guarantee with a monopoly state owner.

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