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Reporters are there to tell a story. We may not like the story or the way it is told, but the First Amendment clearly protects freedom of the press. There will always be a need for a balance between the rights of the press and the right to individual privacy. While lawyers battle in courts over where to draw the line between these two rights, we in the fire service are on the streets, daily confronting the dilemma of how to handle these potentially controversial scenes. Law enforcement won’t always be there to do it for us, so we need to be prepared with reasonable principles to guide our actions.
Current state laws provide one starting point for developing policies. Some states make specific provisions for media access to disaster sites or for family access to a scene. Beyond that, though, fire departments should have policies with a rational basis that reflect the legitimate concerns of the press and victims.
Certainly, departments have the authority to establish a perimeter that limits public access to an incident. Operational priorities supersede rights of the public and the press to have access to an emergency scene. The most important priority is protecting the safety of operational personnel and civilians involved in the incident, as well as bystanders. The courts are likely to approve any reasonable steps taken to improve the safety of those at the scene, but that is not a grant of complete power. A fire department will need to show that its actions were a reasonable means of protecting those involved.
At the scene of any emergency, it is critical to protect the integrity of ongoing operations and investigations. However, this does not give the fire service the unlimited right to hide from the press. If it is necessary to deny the media’s request for access to photograph or video a scene, provide an explanation and seek to find an alternative way to meet their needs. If one location is unsafe, identify a suitable location.
It is inevitable that firefighters will eventually confront the clash of these two basic legal rights. There is no clear answer to the question of how we resolve the conflict nor is there likely to be one. Courts may pass judgment on cases and provide guidance, but we must be prepared to rationally accommodate both interests.