This afternoon in downtown Fort Lauderdale, a Sun-Sentinel photographer took pictures of a FOX News cameraman filming an interview with a freelance photographer – and they were surrounded by college journalists and amateur photographers taking pictures of them.

It looked like this…

It was a protest organized by the South Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. What was everyone protesting? This sign and a bunch just like it that were posted around downtown Fort Lauderdale’s entertainment district over the past couple weeks…

The signs were there because Tom Cruise was going to be. And Alec Baldwin. And Catherine Zeta-Jones. And Russell Brand. They’re starring in a movie called Rock of Ages, set to be released next summer and filming this summer in South Florida.

While it’s common for movie sets to be closed to the public, Rock of Ages producers didn’t stop there: They rented the largest nightclub in the county (28,000 square feet), hired off-duty cops, and ordered them to ban any photography within a three-block radius.

Problem is, those blocks contain a dozen bars and restaurants that are still open to the public.

So it suddenly became illegal for anyone sitting in an outdoor cafe to take pictures of anything. Even each other. Theoretically, it was illegal to take pictures of the sign.

Even weirder, the cops and the movie’s production company defended the ban by citing a Fort Lauderdale law that has nothing to do with photography. The Sun-Sentinel reported, “City officials on Wednesday said they could not identify which ordinance governs the situation.”

That offended this dapper gentleman…

He’s Norm Kent, a well-known South Florida attorney and publisher of South Florida Gay News.

“Freedom of expression, which includes photography, cannot be controlled by movie studios from Hollywood, even if Tom Cruise is in the film,” he said before today’s protest.

This freelance photographer was also pissed off…

Carlos Miller is well known for his blog Photography Is Not a Crime, which is a clearinghouse for illegal incidents of harassed and hassled photographers around the country.

My job was to bring these two activists together. As president of SPJ South Florida, I asked our board to become co-plaintiff with Kent in a lawsuit against the City of Fort Lauderdale. That happened Tuesday, and since then it’s been covered from Dallas to Detroit.

And along with Miller, we organized and publicized today’s protest.

We didn’t picket, though. We simply strolled around and took pictures. But like most journalist-organized events, it was anticlimactic, confusing, amusing, and ultimately futile.

For starters, the offending signs were removed that morning. They were there the day before. So we figured we won before we’d begun.

With about 20 college journalists, freelancers, and amateur and pro photographers who had nothing better to do on a Friday at 1 p.m., we met at one of the area’s restaurants and then whipped out our SLRs, point-and-shoots, and smartphones.

After snapping some photos of each other being interviewed by the local media who were following us, we headed toward the cordoned-off area. On one side of the block, behind a barricade, we met this officer…

He told me I couldn’t walk down the street, even though a nightclub a few hundred yards away wasn’t part of the movie set. It had advertised that it’s open for business most nights.

The conversation went something like this…

“They’re not open now, so you can’t walk there with a camera.”

“When they open tonight, I can take a camera with me, correct?”

“It’s a private business, and if they don’t want you taking pictures, they have that right.”

“You mean I can’t walk down a public street and take a picture of the outside of the building?”

“They pay for the right to set up tables on the sidewalk, so it’s their sidewalk. If they don’t want you taking pictures of the sidewalk, they can really do that.”

Of course, they really can’t. But no sense arguing with a guy carrying a Glock, a Taser, and pepper spray.

Around the other side of the block, we encountered this officer standing on the corner…

There was no barricade over here, but she told us we couldn’t pass “this line.” She made a sweeping gesture with her hand.

“Uh, what line?”

This line!” she said, not quite yelling. She made the gesture again, but bigger.

Some of us tried to walk along the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the street. She ran after us and waved us away.

Across from the railroad tracks is a county-owned parking garage. “Is this OK?!” I yelled. She yelled back, “That’s fine! No closer!”

This was shocking, because only 72 hours earlier, cops had rousted a couple of paparazzi photographers from this same garage for doing the same thing I now had permission for.

I found those paparazzi back in the garage, waiting on the sixth floor with their BFLs (in photo jargon, Big Fucking Lens) for Tom Cruise to emerge from his trailer and head into the nightclub for his scene…

I waited with them for nearly an hour, to see if they’d be ordered to leave once again – even though the signs had disappeared that morning, even though one officer said it was now OK, and even though they were shooting from a public garage in which they’d bought a ticket and parked their cars (which they were standing next to).

Then this cop pulled up in an unmarked police car (you can see the paparazzi’s reflections in his shiny door)…

I walked toward him. “Do you have a ticket?” he asked sternly.

I took mine from my pocket and was about to hand it to him when he waved dismissively and said, “Just kidding! You guys are fine.” He smiled and drove off.

Cool, I thought. Mission accomplished.

The paparazzi thanked us for sticking up for them. (I imagine not many people do.) Then I took this picture…

In a delicious irony, the gentleman in blue with the camouflaged BFL asked me to stop.

“Are you serious?” I said. “You’re a paparazzi photographer standing in a public parking garage who doesn’t want the cops telling him not to take pictures here, and you don’t want me taking pictures here?”

He said he makes more money if he stays anonymous – although I think that big fucking lens gives him away, despite the camo. I told him I don’t know his name and he didn’t have to tell me, but damned if I’m going to erase the photo after everything that’s happened so far.

Then I left, figuring the signs had come down and the cops had backed down. But an hour later, one of the paparazzi called me.

“I’ve been booted from the garage,” he said.

“You’re kidding. The cops kicked you out?”

“No, this guy did. He threatened to arrest me.” And he emailed me a photo of his business card…

A “security supervisor” with the county’s transportation department? Does he even have arrest authority?

“I don’t know, he wouldn’t give me a reason. But I was the only one left in the garage, and I didn’t want to be accused of resisting or fighting or whatever.”

I sympathized. Can you imagine a jury deciding who to believe: A paparazzi photographer staking out Tom Cruise or a “security supervisor” with the Public Works and Transportation Department?

What a waste of a sweaty lunch hour in South Florida.

The next fight, thankfully, is indoors: On Wednesday, Kent has a hearing for an emergency injunction in the courthouse a few blocks away. If he’s successful, a judge will ban cops from banning photography on public property.

And what happens if the judge doesn’t budge? Who the hell knows. Rock of Ages films downtown until June 29. I have a feeling I’ll be hanging out in a humid public parking garage with photographers who don’t want me to take their pictures, trying to get myself arrested.

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