Andy Carvin and NPR producer Wright Bryan had an experimental Gigapan automatic panoramic-photo camera on loan from Carnegie Mellon University, so being the public-minded journalists that they are, they decided to see if it could get them a nice panorama of Washington, DC’s Union Station.

Everything went fine when they took an initial eastward-facing 180° pano; a security gaurd came by, asked if they were taking pictures, said “okay”, and left. But then when they tried to get a 360° from the center of the station hall, more security guards arrived and demanded that the journos stop taking pictures and leave immediately, or face arrest.

Meanwhile, the whole incident was being twittered live. Carvin describes it:

Throughout the conversation, which I should point out was conducted in a cordial, but firm tone, we received mixed messages from the security guards. One told us the problem was that we were using a tripod, while another insisted it was because we had “that thing” on top of our tripod. They then changed the story again, and said that journalists couldn’t take pictures without permission from management, and that Union Station is a private space run by a private company, not a public space. They never gave us an answer as to why we were first allowed to take photos in the first location, but could not do the same here.

I debated them, telling them the story of the security guards who tried to prevent someone from photographing downtown Silver Spring by arguing it was a private space controlled by a private corporation, but was eventually overruled by local officials after much public lambasting. Their reaction was that they were just following orders. I said I wouldn’t leave the premise until someone would go on record as to why we were being stopped, and would supply their name as well.

A fourth security person arrived. He was dressed differently than the other three people, and had a former-marine-turned-middle-management air about him. I asked for his business card and he handed it to me: Robert H. Mangiante, Assistant Director, IPC International Corporation. He then summed up the situation: pack up your gear and leave now, or we’ll arrest you. It’s our choice. Our gear was already packed up at this point, and Wright and his friend had an event at the National Press Club anyway, so that was that. The Gigapan went into my backpack, I folded the tripod and we went our separate ways.

So, is a train station a public place, even if it’s owned by a public nonprofit but leased by a private real estate firm? Is taking pictures in Union Station grounds for arrest? And exactly whose idea was it to throw two amateur photographers out of a train station for taking pictures?