For months, attorneys whose firms are involved in litigation against Madison Square Garden Entertainment have found themselves banned from the company's sporting events and entertainment venues, such as Knicks games and Radio City Rockettes shows.
But now, New York legislators are looking to get better protections for ticketholders and soon could take aim at the company's use of facial recognition technology in enforcing their policy — even as the company refuses to back down.
Attorney and longtime Knicks season ticket holder Larry Hutcher called a proposed state bill "a huge win," as it would prevent MSG Entertainment and its CEO James Dolan from denying entry to sports fans whose law firms have ongoing lawsuits against the corporate giant.
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
"We're New Yorkers, we're not gonna sit still, and see you act like the bully that you are," Hutcher said. "It's clear that everyone recognizes that Dolan has acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner, it is based in a mean-spirited and vindictive way."
Hutcher sued for the 60 attorneys in his firm, citing a 1941 New York State civil rights law in which a judge granted limited relief to specific lawyers for non-sporting events. But MSG Entertainment still blocked other attorneys like Girl Scout mom Kelly Conlon, who was taking her daughter to the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall when facial recognition technology identified her.
"MSG instituted a straightforward policy that precludes attorneys pursuing active litigation against the company from attending events at our venues until that litigation is resolved," the company previously told NBC New York.
While attorneys battle in court over whether MSG has violated the civil rights law, legislators are acting on their own to amend it, adding a provision to protect ticket holders.
"Frankly, they owe it to New Yorkers to stop this type of bullying behavior, and allow every patron who wants to see a game or see a show at Radio City the opportunity to do so," said New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman.
MSG fired back at the proposed changes, saying "The fact that these politicians have so courageously taken on the 'plight' of attorneys representing ticket scalpers and other money grabbers speaks volumes about their priorities."
A spokesperson for the company went on to say "We urge these elected officials to introduce legislation that addresses issues their constituents are actually concerned with rather than focus on amending a poorly worded and misinterpreted 80-year-old law."
Court and legislative battles aside, there is still the ongoing controversial issue of the company's use of facial recognition technology.
"Today it's lawyers. Who is it tomorrow: Dentists, doctors, you as a journalist?" said Hutcher. "Anybody who criticizes Madison Square Garden, they're going to be on the list. So, there's got to be controls. There has to be somebody who says, enough is enough."
Critics have claimed the tech is being used to target perceived enemies of MSG, a claim the company rejects.
A spokesperson for the company told NBC New York that their facial recognition technology does not retain images of individuals, except for those previously advised they are prohibited from entering the company's venues or whose previous misconduct has identified them as being a security risk.
What started the controversy was a mother joining her daughter on a Girl Scot trip to Radio City. Conlon is an associate with the New Jersey based law firm, Davis, Saperstein and Solomon, which for years has been involved in personal injury litigation against a restaurant venue now under the umbrella of MSG Entertainment.
But Conlon said she herself doesn't practice law in New York, and is not an attorney working on any cases involving MSG.
That didn't stop MSG Entertainment from identifying and zeroing in on her just as she got into the lobby before the show the weekend after Thanksgiving. Security guards stepped in, and while her daughter, other members of the Girl Scout troop and their mothers got to go enjoy the show, Conlon wasn't allowed to do so.
"It was pretty simultaneous, I think, to me, going through the metal detector, that I heard over an intercom or loudspeaker," she told NBC New York. "I heard them say woman with long dark hair and a grey scarf."
She said she was asked her name and to produce identification.
"I believe they said that our recognition picked you up," Conlon said.
A sign at Radio City Music Hall stated that facial recognition is used as a security measure to ensure safety for guests and employees. Conlon says she posed no threat, but the guards still kicked her out with the explanation that they knew she was an attorney.
"They knew my name before I told them. They knew the firm I was associated with before I told them. And they told me I was not allowed to be there," said Conlon.
MSG said she was banned — along with fellow attorneys in that firm and others, as according to their policy.
"While we understand this policy is disappointing to some, we cannot ignore the fact that litigation creates an inherently adverse environment. All impacted attorneys were notified of the policy, including Davis, Saperstein and Salomon, which was notified twice," a spokesperson for MSG Entertainment said in a statement.
"This whole scheme is a pretext for doing collective punishment on adversaries who would dare sue MSG in their multi-billion dollar network," said Sam Davis, a partner at the firm where Conlon works.
Other firms have sued over being blacklisted. Conlon said she thought a recent judge's order in one of those cases made it clear that ticketholders like her "may not be denied entry to any shows."
MSG stated that "In this particular situation, only the one attorney who chose to attend was denied entry, and the rest of of her group — including the Girl Scouts — were all able to attend and enjoy the show."
"I was just a mom taking my daughter to see a Christmas show," Conlon told the I-Team. "I did wait outside...It was embarrassing, it was mortifying."
Davis is now upping the legal ante, challenging MSG’s license with the State Liquor Authority.
"The liquor license that MSG got requires them to admit members of the public, unless there are people who would be disruptive who constitute a security threat," said Davis. "Taking a mother, separating a mother from her daughter and Girl Scouts she was watching over — and to do it under the pretext of protecting any disclosure of litigation information — is absolutely absurd. The fact they’re using facial recognition to do this is frightening. It’s un-American to do this."
A spokesperson for MSG reiterated in a statement that safety is their highest priority and that facial recognition is just one of the methods they use. MSG Entertainment also said it is confident their policy is in compliance with all applicable laws, including the New York State Liquor Authority.