Before the Lincoln High School prom last Saturday night, 16-year-old Sammi McCasland and seven of her friends -- a total of four couples -- decided to take photos with their smartphones at the Japanese Friendship Garden at Kelley Park.
Having duly paid the $6 per vehicle parking fee, the Lincoln students walked toward the bridges and ponds of the friendship garden in search of the right spot for a memory. That's when a San Jose park ranger told them no.
"We get there, and she says, 'Do you guys have a permit?' '' remembered Sammi. "We said 'no.' She said, 'No, you can't take pictures.' ''
The Lincoln kids, part of a wave of promgoers descending on the garden, waited until the park ranger had gone and then took their shots without benefit of the $100 permit.
Witnesses said other students were simply turned away flat. "People were mad,'' Sammi told me. "Everyone was really annoyed and frustrated.''
Is this really policy? Can the City of San Jose -- which, let's face it, takes in a fair amount of taxes from the students and their parents -- really be in the business of stopping kids from taking prom pictures with their cellphones at a public park?
Breaking the rules?
And if that's so, shouldn't the city's park rangers stop everyone from taking photos, even the tourists who pose on the bridge by the koi fish? Make room at Elmwood Correctional Center: We have massive lawbreaking at the Japanese Friendship Garden.
When I ran this episode past Steve Hammack, the deputy director of parks, recreation and neighborhood services, he said the city's policy was clear.
"We encourage photography in the park and only require a permit when conducted for the purposes of doing business,'' he wrote me by email.
"This situation as you outlined below does not require a permit. I am following up with staff to make sure we are not misrepresenting the requirements for obtaining a permit.''
And that's fair enough. San Francisco, for example, says that permits aren't needed unless the photographer is being paid -- a wedding videographer, for instance.
You can see the reasoning behind that: In a paid gig, the city's grounds are being used as a business backdrop.
Yet it may not be wholly fair to blame the park ranger here. When you look up the city's policies online (www.sanjoseca.gov) the rules appear ambiguous.
Under the "Photo Permit'' section, the city says, "Photo permits are necessary for any type of photography or filming in all city of San Jose parks.''
But an FAQ for photo permits has this question: "Do I have to have a permit for photos if I'm just visiting the park and snapping a few pictures?'' The answer is "No.''
So it appears that "snapping a few pictures,'' which is presumably what the promgoers were attempting, is not the same as the "any type of photography'' requiring a $100 permit from the city.
Now it might be that the park ranger saw a big group of kids arriving at the park and lumped it in with something like a lavish wedding or quinceañera.
If so, put up a few signs outlining the policy. It will help the rangers and picture-takers. And save the rest of us from going mad, in both senses.