updated 4/22/2010 6:55:33 PM ET 2010-04-22T22:55:33

A civil rights group accused the U.S. government of harassing law-abiding photographers outside a courthouse, saying in a lawsuit Thursday that a vague federal regulation restricting photography has been used inconsistently and is unconstitutional.

The New York Civil Liberties Union used the case of a photographer who was arrested in November outside federal court in Manhattan to illustrate its claim.

Antonio Musumeci, the only plaintiff in the lawsuit, was arrested as he videotaped a political protest in a public plaza. Musumeci, a member of the Manhattan Libertarian Party and a software developer for an investment bank, lives in Edgewater, N.J.

The civil rights group said the regulation he was accused of violating is unconstitutional because it regulates noncommercial photography in outdoor areas such as sidewalks and plazas, where the public is supposed to have unrestricted access.

The lawsuit, which targeted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Protective Service, accused the government of using the regulation "as an excuse to arrest and harass law-abiding photographers."

Government spokeswoman Yusill Scribner declined to comment Thursday.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and a declaration that the government acted unconstitutionally against Musumeci, who uses photography to record political speeches and to document police misconduct.

Musumeci, 29, was arrested as he sought to videotape a libertarian activist who had been arrested outside the courthouse several times after he distributed pamphlets to potential jurors as part of an effort to advocate for jury nullification.

The lawsuit said that a federal officer confiscated the memory card from Musumeci's camera for evidence and that when Musumeci questioned if notice of the regulation was required he was told no notice was necessary and he was learning "the hard way."

After being detained for about 20 minutes, Musumeci was released with a ticket for violating the photography regulation, the lawsuit said. Last month, the charge against Musumeci was dropped.

The lawsuit said the regulation requiring written permission of an authorized official for any photography in the space occupied by a tenant agency has been in the Code of Federal Regulations since at least 1957. It said the government had used the regulation to arrest at least one other photographer outside a federal building in lower Manhattan.

The government lets photographers take pictures and video outside federal court in Philadelphia and lets people use personal cameras on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, the lawsuit noted.

Even outside Manhattan federal court, it noted, people who participate in a citizenship naturalization ceremony each Friday are permitted to take pictures.

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